A Disaster that didn’t need to be

“Laws are spider webs through which the
big flies pass and the little ones get caught.” –
Honoré de Balzac

On April 24, a tragedy occurred that is made all the worse by the fact
it could have been avoided. I’m speaking, of course, of the garment factory
collapse in Bangladesh. Though estimates vary, the death toll is at least 900
and counting[1].

The factory was essentially a sweatshop, where workers toiled for less
than $40 per month. The building was obviously derelict, constructed of
substandard materials and showing obvious structural safety risks[2].
Despite being both advised by an engineer and ordered by police to evacuate the
building, the employer ignored. Instead, he instructed factory managers to
force the workers to enter the building and continue their work[3].
He forced them back to their deaths. Most of the dead were women from poor
backgrounds who couldn’t risk employer reprisals.

Factories like this supply such well-known companies as Walmart and the
Gap. These companies had long known of the deplorable safety conditions and
lack of labour protections in Bangladesh yet took no steps to protect the lives
of workers. Last November, for instance, a fire occurred in an unsafe factory
in Tazreen that sold items to Walmart. One hundred and twelve workers died. Following
such events Walmart lost any ability to claim it didn’t know of the deplorable
working conditions. Still, besides funding a fire safety program and teaching
workplace safety best practices, the company did little to improve conditions
or prevent future tragedies. And this most recent catastrophe shows no signs of
altering the do-nothing attitude of big business.

For instance, an agreement has been proposed that would create an
independent inspection program in Bangladesh. The purpose of the agreement is to
monitor factory safety and could prevent future disasters. But companies like
Walmart, the Gap and H & M will have none of it. The agreement would require
such major retailers to pay between $250,000 and $500,000 of revenues obtained
via their Bangladesh-made products. This money would help to fund the
inspection program. The companies, however, have refused to sign the agreement
on the basis that it’s too costly[4].

It’s astonishing these companies can cite cost as a reason to refuse to sign.
In 2011, Walmart’s revenues were $447 billion[5].
$500,000 is hardly noticeable against this mountain of revenues, reaped in
large part by travelling the world to exploit poor workers. The employer who
ordered the workers back to work has been arrested.

Major US retailers may not have directly ordered the workers into the
unsafe factory, but they can’t avoid complicity. These companies flee the
labour rights in North America and Europe to exploit workers in countries with
less developed laws. In doing so, they foster a culture of disregard for labour
rights. Still, will Executives of the major retailers face consequences for
their part in the disaster? At the very least will they be publicly reprimanded?
The answer is likely no on both counts.


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