“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” These ominous words came from Kasturba Gandhi (Gandhi’s wife) more than half-a-century ago. How haunting they are now in light of recent events in Bangladesh.
The tragic collapse of the factory in Bangladesh last week and the resulting deaths of more than 400 workers has left me angry beyond words. It seems as if the world is sitting up and taking notice this time. Perhaps this is a good thing, but we all should feel profound shame at the lack of action around worker safety in the garment factories that dot the landscape in countries like Bangladesh.
Sadly, our fingerprints are all over this disaster.
In 2010, a fire at the Hameem factory in Dhaka took the lives of 146 workers. In November of 2012, another factory fire resulted in the deaths of 112 workers. These incidents reveal some haunting similarities:
Most of the dead were young women.
Unbelievably, in both fires, the doors were locked. Security guards are ordered to lock the gates to prevent the theft of garments.
The sewers laboured under horrific conditions, earning wages in the vicinity of 28 cents an hour and working shifts that are as long as 14 hours.
Last week, workers returned to work on Wednesday morning despite seeing a crack in the foundation that went all the way up to the fifth floor. Fearing for their safety, many workers did not want to return to their sewing machines on Wednesday morning. However, they were told that if they did not report to duty, they would lose their wages for the entire month! So, these young women were given a choice. Go up and work and pray that you are not crushed to death by a building on the verge of collapse; or have your children go without food.
Sadly, the wreckage and devastation that has been broadcast across our airwaves confirms the choice that was made. Down below, the workers in the bank and offices on the main floor did not return to work due to the very same safety concerns. It seems like the Titanic tragedy from years earlier, where the poor were locked down below while the upper class escaped to safety.
This is a snapshot of life in a sweatshop in the developing world. This is where virtually all of our “stuff” comes from.
The aforementioned factories produced clothing for GAP, Wal-Mart, Disney and Loblaws among other retailers. The retailers are quick to offer token sympathies and insist that they demand legitimate safety standards from the factories where our unending demand for more stuff is satisfied. However, the same companies avoid any serious attempts to accept any real responsibility for the death and destruction that takes place on their watch. Both Wal-Mart and Sears refused to attend a conference held in Geneva to discuss compensation to families impacted by the 2012 fire.
As the images of this latest disaster sift into public consciousness, some companies are responding with a renewed commitment to uphold fire and safety standards in all the production factories they do business with. It is time that we all demanded much more than that. Let’s start with our unconditional insistence that all workers are paid a decent living wage with real human benefits and the right to organize.
In July 2010, when garment workers in Bangladesh struggled for a 35-cent-an-hour wage, women were attacked, beaten with clubs, shot with rubber bullets and hosed down with powerful water cannons, using a dye so protesting workers could be identified and arrested. This is the real face of globalization and we should be outraged.
Silence is complicity — and it is time for all people of good will to demand real, meaningful change.