4.28.2013

bangladesh factory fire: consumers are not the problem, or the solution

As I write this, the death toll in the recent Bangladesh factory fire nears 350. That number is expected to grow, as scores of people are still trapped under giant blocks of concrete, and not expected to survive. Six people have been arrested in connection with the conditions in the factory.

This fire is only the latest (and worst) in a long series of factory fires in Bangladesh's booming garment industry.
After a fire killed 112 garment workers at Tazreen Fashions in November, clothing brands and retailers rejected a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry. Instead, companies expanded a patchwork system of private audits and training. Labor groups insist that the moves improve little, with official inspections lax and factory owners enjoying close ties to the government.

In the five months since, there have been 41 "fire incidents" in Bangladesh factories—ranging from a fatal conflagration to smaller fires that caused employees to panic, according to a labor organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Combined, those incidents killed nine workers and injured more than 660.
Canadians were horrified to learn that this most recent, horrific fire occurred in a factory that supplies (among other companies) the "Joe Fresh" clothing brand sold by the Loblaws companies, a huge Canadian supermarket chain. There has been an outpouring of reaction online, including petitions to Loblaws and vows of personal boycotts.

It's excellent and important that consumers connect the products they buy to the workers who make those products. But a consumer boycott could never be widespread enough, or sustained long enough, or affect enough companies, to leverage real change.

What's more, too many North American consumers are themselves exploited workers - earning sub-living wages, paying market-driven housing costs, earning barely enough for food and fuel, living one paycheque away from homelessness. Or worse, they are long-term unemployed. Too many of us are struggling to sustain families in impossible conditions, and are obligated to live as cheaply as possible. And don't Loblaws and Walmart (and the rest of them) know that? They help create those conditions so the lure of their low prices is impossible to resist.

The problem is not a personal, individual one, and neither is the solution.

The most effective response to the Bangladesh factory fire came from the Bangladeshi workers themselves: a massive strike, in which hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand change. This was not the first garment workers' strike in Bangladesh and it undoubtedly won't be their last. Witness this 2010 photo of a police officer poised to smash a child with his club: the child is a striking garment worker.

At nearly the same time as the recent strike in Bangladesh, fast-food and retail workers in Chicago walked off their jobs to demand a living wage.

The Bangladeshi garment workers and the Chicago fast-food workers suffer from the same problem and are part of the same solution. Workers themselves must organize and demand more equitable working conditions. As responsible consumers and as workers, we can and we must support their efforts. But only the Bangladeshi people will be able to change their own conditions.

Canadian columnist Doug Saunders was excoriated by many liberal readers for seeming to explain away the sweatshops of Bangladesh. But although Saunders' column may seem insensitive, he is right.  Just as North American garment workers did a century ago, Bangladeshi workers will have to end the sweatshop system, by forcing their country to institute real labour laws, health and safety laws, fire codes, and building codes. By forcing the ruling class to demand real accountability from the companies that do business there. Because really, why are clothes sold in North America made in Bangladesh in the first place? Because there, corporations can get away with it.

This supposed "need" to locate production in areas with lower standards of living is accepted as perfectly normal. It doesn't have to be. Imagine a system where corporations are accountable not to shareholders but to communities. Where in order to enjoy the benefits of our society, they must also contribute to it. In a post last year, I imagined a different system.
In order to create large numbers of good jobs,we would have to re-write the laws of the American economy. We'd have to unravel many of the developments of the past 50 years. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head.

- In order to enjoy the privilege of selling goods in the United States, a company must employ at least 75% of its total workforce within the United States.

- Goods produced outside North America will be subject to a 50% tariff.

- All so-called free trade agreements are hereby null and void. Corporations will exist wholly within the borders of one country. Goods and services are to be produced within 500 miles of their point of use or sale.
In other words, corporations are no longer solely responsible to shareholders. They are now responsible to the local economy. Imagine the benefits to our entire society as millions more people enjoy stable, well-compensated employment - to say nothing of the massive reduction in carbon emissions as globalization is rolled back 50 years.

Signing a petition to Loblaws or taking a pass on Joe Fresh products are perfectly good actions, especially if they raise our own consciousness about the dangers of global capitalism. But as long as North American companies are allowed to operate in no-law zones, they will do so, no matter where we buy our clothes.

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For perspective, I highly recommend this article from the Harper's archives: "Shopping for Sweat: The human cost of a two-dollar T-shirt," by Ken Silverstein.

And for even greater perspective, I recommend reading Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, by David von Drehle, which I wrote about here, here, and here.

4 comments:

kirbycairo said...

The thing I find interesting is the degree to which it is obvious that at the heart of the corporate effort in countries like Bangladesh is not just profits but a massive anti-union push. One need only look at the fact that American Apparel makes all its own clothes in a factory in LA where the workers not only work under relatively good conditions but also enjoy actual health benefits etc. American Apparel makes a profit doing business this way so one can only assume that Joe Fresh could do the same. The real concern for Joe Fresh and other such companies is the effort to create a large garment workforce in North America where they might arrive at some collective consciousness in a context in which they have some actual rights (for form unions etc.).

laura k said...

There was a large - an enormous - garment workforce in North America, and it was union, and it thrived for workers, owners, and consumers.

Those unions and the high standards of living that flowed from them were broken by companies determined to lower labour costs. Firsts the companies moved to the southern US "right to work" (i.e. anti-union) states. Then further south to Puerto Rico. Then onward to the Philippines and Asia. All the while claiming that they were forced to do so because of unions.

It's not as if the business model that includes good wages and benefits is unknown to the needle trades. I'm sure they know their history as well as I do.

laura k said...

We should also note that American Apparel's shops are non-union. Like Whole Foods employees, AA's relatively good pay and benefits depends on the good graces of their employer. They do not have the right to collective bargaining. Meaning, they have no more control over their working lives than the workers in Bangladesh.

laura k said...

* AA's employees' relatively good pay