Chris Aylward

Bangladesh: profit before decency

Just a few short months ago, on April 24, a shoddily-built textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. Cracks had appeared in the building in Rana Plaza the day before, but were ignored: the workers were ordered back on the job the next morning. 1,129 of them went to their deaths; more than twice that number were injured.

If you want a snapshot of where the families of the victims are today, watch the video, above. They’ve basically been left to rot. Kids are now forced to leave school to work in other sweatshops, after their parents were injured or killed. As for compensation? Surely the rich multinational companies that sourced from that factory, several of whose names you’ll recognize—Wal-mart, Benneton’s, J.C.Penney—would be all over that?

Yeah, right.

78% of what Bangladesh exports is cheap clothing, most of which is destined for the First World. It’s churned out by 3.6 million workers, of whom 80% are women. It’s a lucrative proposition for the corporations who source there: labour costs in that country are the lowest anywhere.

The last thing these corporate profit-machines might be expected to do, as they gainfully exploit cheap labour in these Third World sweatshops, is to accept responsibility for local factory conditions, and do the right thing. In fact, they can be predicted to resist cutting into their bottom line, and so they have.

As always, nothing being entirely black or white, there are honourable exceptions—casualties on a historic scale prompted Loblaw’s to react quickly and positively, and a Loblaw’s subsidiary, the British-based Primark Stores, paid initial compensation to the victims almost immediately, and is following up with more.

But those responsible actions merely serve to highlight the negligence of most of the other corporations involved. This month, during talks in Geneva sponsored by the International Labour Organization to deal with the on-going crisis, most of the invited corporations refused even to show up—only 9 out of 22, including Loblaw’s and Primark, bothered to attend. The gathering, unsurprisingly, produced nothing tangible. But there will be more meetings, comforting no doubt to the destitute families of those who died, and to the injured survivors and their families, all forced to make do in the meantime.

In the wake of the factory collapse, pressure has also been put on clothing retailers. Two major international labour centrals, Uni Global Union and IndustriALL, in collaboration with the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh and several NGOs, drafted the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” and pressed hard through national affiliates to get the brands to sign. 87 have now complied. But Wal-Mart, Sears, J.C. Penney, Gap and Target have declined. Wal-Mart said it would expose the company to unlimited liability—and give unions too much power.

Even the compensation offered by the Bangladesh government is not being offered to everyone involved in the Rana Plaza tragedy. Desperate families are expected to produce the DNA of their loved ones literally out of the factory rubble to qualify for compensation. 300 bodies were buried without identification. DNA testing kits were offered by the US, and samples have been collected, but Bangladesh lacks the computer software required to do the matches. So hundreds, unable to comply with their government’s requirements, are being refused help, despite being able to prove that their family members worked at the factory.

Except for the much greater scale of injury and death, what happened in Bangladesh is reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911. Eventually, a public outcry over the latter led to improved health and safety regulations and improved labour laws. One hopes that the carnage in Bangladesh might have the same long-term result, but there is obviously a considerable way to go, with so many powerful anti-union interests involved.

Maybe in the meanwhile the 1,129 dead in what is only the latest Third World factory disaster could be added to those remembered in an as-yet-unconstructed monument to the countless victims of capitalism. Fair’s fair.

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This page contains a single entry by Chris Aylward published on September 19, 2013 8:30 AM.

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