Bangladeshi garment factory collapses, killing 96, and the media once again reports half of the story
April 24, 2013
Ninety-six people died (and over a thousand were injured) making our clothes in Bangladesh today when the factory in which they were working collapsed. The tragedy is the latest in a troubling series of Bangladeshi factory fires, including a January fire that killed several teenagers, a November fire that killed 112, and a December 2010 fire that injured over 100 and killed 27 in a factory supplying Gap clothes.
The factory owners apparently detected a dangerous crack in the building yesterday, but ignored the warning and allowed workers to enter the building for work today.
One fireman told Reuters about 2,000 people were in the building when the upper floors slammed down onto those below.
The world’s biggest garment producers and retailers, including Wal-Mart, Sears, and Disney, have succeeded in limiting their legal liability as well as public scorn by constructing elaborate supply chains that make the Western corporations appear only distantly connected to these third-world tragedies. Businesses in the building that collapsed today had names like Phantom Apparels Ltd., New Wave Style Ltd., New Wave Bottoms Ltd. and New Wave Brothers Ltd., (Ltd. meaning limited liability), but sell to major retailers including Benetton, The Children’s Place and Dress Barn, according to CBS.
The reality is that virtually all of the clothes we buy in America and Europe come from countries like Bangladesh (which is now the second largest exporter of garments due to its extremely low wages and dangerous working conditions). According to the U.S. Department of Labor, between five and fifteen million 10- to 14- year-old children work in garment factories in Bangladesh. Seventy-five to ninety percent of garment workers are women.
There is no paid leave for holidays, and salary is deducted if the child is absent, or for unproductive periods when the electricity in the factory temporarily goes out. Girls under 15 years of age are preferred in these factories, as they work for less, are more likely to be unmarried with no children or domestic responsibilities, and cause no labor problems.
Media coverage of workplace disasters abroad rarely make connections to these aspects of the average worker’s experience, nor do they interrogate connections to American and European companies that ultimately enjoy the profit margin on the goods produced. When those companies are mentioned, they typically decline to comment, as Wal-Mart did today, or deny that they have any official contracts with the local businesses, which is made easier by generally shoddy paperwork and little international enforcement of labor and trade regulations.
Every few months we see news of Bangladeshi factory fires and deaths. What are those in power doing to prevent the next catastrophe? And how often do we base our own consumption choices on the working conditions of people who actually sewed the clothes, cleaned the smartphone screens, picked the tomatoes, mined the minerals? As Americans, must we continue to live in perpetual guilt about the consequences of our daily behavior?
(Photo from Reuters)