On April 24, 2013 a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and initial reports put the death toll at 580 and the news did not get any better. These workers, who start working with a salary of $40 a month, did not know that the factory in which they were working was not strong enough to hold the weight of the people and the machines used for cutting and stitching together the garments worn by people around the world. They did not realize that the very vibrations of the machines they were using were literally shaking the building out from under them. What a horrifying way to die.
On March 25, 1911 The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught on fire. Management was in the habit of locking the women who worked there in each morning and letting them out when their shift was over, so as the fire grew, the women, who tried to leave by the doors found that they could not as the doors were still locked. These women either burned to death or leapt to their deaths from upper story windows. Also a horrifying way to die.
While we were still dealing with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, also in April, 2013, we learned that a fertilizer plant in West, Texas blew up killing many workers and flattening a good portion of the town of West. Yet another horrifying way to die.
You would think that we would have learned the lesson of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and we did for a while. We got unions to help prevent bosses from abusing workers by not allowing them to do things like locking them in. We got OSHA to inspect industrial premises and force bosses to be aware of safety violations, to fine them for infractions, and to do whatever they could to call attention to possible negative outcomes. As their findings were public, society and unions could put pressure on manufacturers to fix unsafe conditions.
So we might be able to understand that workers in Bangladesh are sort of in the position that the ladies were in during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. They are not unionized. They are in a country that desperately wants to raise the standard of living in their nation. It is relatively inexpensive to live in Bangladesh and people are happy enough to earn a stable income that they may not be paying attention to the conditions in their workplace, or they may feel powerless to change these conditions as others are waiting to take their place. I’m sure they did not foresee this terrible accident. But it is clear that their bosses were cutting corners and were not paying attention to the safety of their workers. They did what bosses do; they kept their eyes on the bottom line and it was looking good.
In 1911 there were not a lot of industrialized nations anywhere but in Europe and America. We might be able to excuse those bosses for making enormous demands on their very poor workers. In fact, all over the industrialized world bosses were not expected to treat workers with any kind of respect or fairness; they were just expected to keep production going. There was no compassion, society basically belonged to the wealthy and they looked the other way because of tradition and privilege.
We could argue that Bangladesh is in the place where Western nations were in 1911 and leave things at that, except the bosses there are taking their orders from us for products used in our neck of the woods and we are buying these products because we like that prices are being kept low. We understand that these workers are not being taken care of properly, that our bargains come at the expense of worker’s rights and safety, but a horrific occurrence such as this collapse in Bangladesh is making us rethink our “good” fortune. However much we would like to change things for these newly exploited workers, the fact is that unless the real manufacturers of this products are “outted” in the press we have almost no way to know what is made where, a piece of information we used to possess. This makes boycotts difficult and, besides, the outcomes of boycotts often have unintended effects that hurt the very workers they are supposed to help.
Will we make these nations reinvent unions and rules to protect the safety and conditions of workers? Probably not because we have no mechanism to interfere in the ways these countries function nor do we have the will. The global press may be able to effect some change and we can hope that the learning curve of this new group of workers will be steeper than ours was. We may cut back our consumption of goods because it looks like we are headed for more abstemious times, but that will not necessarily be good news for these newly industrialized nations either. Besides, if we get our own economic and employment issues straightened out we may become happy consumers once again. But as these workers improve their standard of living they will demand better treatment from their bosses, and those bosses, who have benefited from extremely low overhead, will find that they are moving towards the regulations they left America to escape.
Last, but not least, we have the killer explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. This comes at a time when our nation is going about the business of union busting and cutting back on safeguards and rules because of a lack of resources and stubborn Republican governors who are intent on wiping away years of social progress which, as these examples clearly show, is a stupid way to go. The amount of ammonium nitrate (I think that is the chemical) being stored in that factory was way over the safe limits. How could this happen in 21st century America. We are pedaling backwards in every way and if you want to know why look to the small government crew, the deregulation crew, the “Big Business rocks” crew. Unregulated Capitalism is a nightmare we have experienced before; why would we want to experience this nightmare again. Robert Reich from Berkeley wrote an article called The Hollowing of the Government, in the Huffington Post which I hope you will read if you have a greater interest in this subject.