I've written several times (most recently, here) about the effects of our fixation with low prices, and our blindness to how we get them.
Garment industry workers are among the least honored and protected in the world. Manufacturers have consistently fled from "high wage" regions to lower wage ones, from New England to the South, from the South to China, from China to Bangladesh and Pakistan and elsewhere.
Garment workers have paid for this with their lives, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory girls (and boys) of lower Manhattan in 1910 to the Bangladeshi workers of this year and the last. In 2012 alone, more than 300 workers died in a factory fire in Pakistan and nearly 300 in a similar fire in Bangladesh.
Yesterday, news broke of a building collapse in a suburb of Dhaka, causing the death of more than 100 garment workers.
According to the New York Times report by Julfikar Ali Manik and Jim Yardley, the death toll is sure to rise, as workers remain trapped in the rubble.
The Bangladeshi news media reported that inspection teams had discovered cracks in the structure of Rana Plaza on Tuesday. Shops and a bank branch on the lower floors immediately closed. But the owners of the garment factories on the upper floors ordered employees to work on Wednesday, despite the safety risks.Because after all, what's more important than keeping those sewing machines humming?
But the structural cracks spotted on Tuesday weren't cosmetic, and the next day, there came "a loud and terrifying cracking sound", followed by feeling "the concrete factory floor roll beneath their feet", and then the awful implosion of an eight-story building.
Who's responsible for this nightmare of suffering? The factory owners who placed their profits ahead of the workers' safety, of course, and I hope that there will be legal repercussions. But they are not alone.
Activists blame the Western companies for which these factories produce garments.
Labor activists combed the wreckage on Wednesday afternoon and discovered labels and production records suggesting that the factories were producing garments for major European and American brands. Labels were discovered for the Spanish brand Mango, and for the low-cost British chain Primark.Activists said the factories also had produced clothing for Walmart, the Dutch retailer C & A, Benetton and Cato Fashions, according to customs records, factory Web sites and documents discovered in the collapsed building.
Scott Nova, an executive director with a labor rights organization (Workers Rights Consortium), is quoted as saying:
The front-line responsibility is the government’s, but the real power lies with Western brands and retailers, beginning with the biggest players: Walmart, H & M, Inditex, Gap and others. The price pressure these buyers put on factories undermines any prospect that factories will undertake the costly repairs and renovations that are necessary to make these buildings safe.
I am not a Wal-Mart fan, but I'm not about to lay all the blame at Wal-Mart's feet, either.
We are the ones who demand cheap-and-good, even while we know in our hearts that these are incompatible. The solution is to look the other way. Not my problem.
Just a few months ago, I quoted Richard Locke, deputy dean of MIT's Sloan School of Management: "We as consumers like to be able to buy ever-greater quantities of ever-cheaper goods, every year. Somebody is bearing the cost of it, and we don’t want to know about it." (NYT article from which that quote is taken, here)
And so, just a few months ago, I made an early New Year's resolution, promising to read clothing labels more carefully, to ask tougher questions, and to be willing to walk away from that "adorable" blouse that was obviously made with near-slave labor.
My purchase decisions alone aren't enough to swing the pendulum. But with your help, we can make the change. Please join me.