President Obama’s recent Africa tour could be of great significance.
The fire that killed more than 100 workers at the clothing factory in Bangladesh was an act of industrial homicide, which must not be tolerated. This was the most recent of several such crimes, leading to the deaths of another 500 people, mostly young women.
These fires are a consequence of a production system that places the profits of multinational clothing manufacturers and their contractors above the lives of people.
The Bangladesh factory was selling clothing to Walmart, among others. Walmart's profit-at-any-cost philosophy is leading to growing protest among Walmart workers here in the United States over their own wages and conditions.
The Bangladesh fire tells us a lot about the conditions under which the garments consumers bought on Black Friday were made. Reports from the scene say there were no fire escapes. Several young women jumped from the windows to get away from the flames, as their sisters did a century ago in New York City in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. A number of Tazreen workers were trapped inside and burned to death.
Walmart has a grading system for its contractors, and had put the Tazreen factory on "orange" status (green for good, yellow for not so good, orange for a warning, and red for a contractor whose orders are cut off). Yet the company kept giving Tazreen orders.
The reason is clear. Wages are 21 cents an hour. Contractors like Tazreen compete against each other to get the orders. In a garment factory, the main way they cut costs is by cutting wages and expenses like safety.
Workers in Bangladesh have been trying to win the right to organize strong unions to raise those wages and improve working conditions.
But police in Bangladesh have been putting down demonstrations by workers in this region for months. One activist, Aminul Islam, was tortured and killed this year.
The Bangladeshi government uses low wages to attract manufacturers like Walmart. It does not enforce safety regulations, as the fires clearly show. Walmart then uses the labor of these workers to boost its profits, and has the same hostile attitude toward their efforts to organize unions as it does toward the efforts of its employees in the United States.
Manufacturers claim that if wages and safety costs rise, so will the prices of garments in U.S. stores. Yet if wages of 21 cents an hour were doubled, it would add only a few pennies to the cost of even a cheap T-shirt.
We, as consumers, need to exercise our power. We can refuse to purchase garments made in factories like the one that killed more than 100 people, or that are sold in stores that deny workers the right to organize.
Whether at a sewing machine in Bangladesh or at a cash register in California, workers have the right to a safe job, a decent standard of living, and to organize. We need a system for producing and selling clothing that reinforces those rights, not one that works against them.
David Bacon is a California writer and photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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