When you crowd 1,500 workers into a sweatshop with too few exits, setting them up behind jerry-rigged sewing machines amid a cloud of fabric dust (photo above, right), you shouldn’t be surprised if a fire breaks out, killing dozens of them and injuring dozens more as they struggle to escape the inferno. It’s a chance you take to satisfy the insatiable demand for bargain garments. Like the ones on sale at Walmart.
So when flames erupt in such a place, as they did in Dhaka, Bangladesh last night (photo above, left), it’s hard to figure out who is to blame – or, rather, who is not to blame.
Obviously, the factory’s operator – in this case Tazreen Fashions – is liable, both financially and morally. According to the New York Times report of the tragedy, Delowar Hossain, the managing director of the Tuba Group which is Tazreen’s parent company, is apparently aware of his role in the tragedy; he is quoted as asking a reporter to “pray for me.”
The Bangladesh fire, which killed more than a hundred workers, most of them women, is still under investigation, and it will be a while before the exact cause is known. But you can be sure unsafe conditions were a major factor.
The New York Times report revealed that:
A document posted on the company’s Web site showed that an “ethical sourcing” official for Walmart flagged “violations and/or conditions which were deemed to be high risk” at the factory in May 2011, though it did not specify the nature of the infractions. The notice said that the factory had been given an “orange” grade and that any factories given three such assessments in two years from their last audit would not receive any orders from Walmart for one year.
So Walmart flagged violations, did they? Does that exonerate Walmart from blame?
Does it exonerate the customers who descended on Walmart stores this past weekend, in a feeding frenzy for cheap clothes?
What about the politicians who made it irresistibly attractive for American companies to procure their goods from foreign countries with cheap labor and lax safety regulations? Don’t they have blood on their hands?
Don’t they share responsibility for the inhuman exploitation of poverty stricken people – even such abuses as child slavery on African chocolate plantations – by the global corporations supplying the vast American market?
And why do so many Americans shop at Walmart? My guess is that they really can’t afford to shop at more expensive retailers. And even if they could, they wouldn’t find much that’s made in America. Just about everything at the mall these days is produced in China, or Bangladesh, or some other low-wage, poorly regulated country.
What about the employers of the people who shop at Walmart? Low wages make it impossible for their workers to shop anywhere else. The rich grow increasingly richer, while the rest of America hasn’t had a pay raise in years. The upper crust can afford not one, not two, but three Bentleys (that’s what I heard Ben Stein say – about his “neighbors” – on TV the other day). Meanwhile, their employees must shop at Walmart.
To keep its goods within the budgets of American workers, Walmart gets its stuff made in places like Bangladesh. And to keep their prices attractive to buyers like Walmart, the Bangladesh sweat shop operators skimp on safety.
And tragedies happen.
The chain of blame does not stop there. You have to ask yourself why the people of Bangladesh would submit to such horrid working conditions and such miserably low pay.
That question would take volumes to answer, but the root cause is – in a word – imperialism. Bangladesh became a nation in 1971, when it seceded from Pakistan. Before the British created Pakistan in 1947 (as a refuge for India’s persecuted Muslims), the area that is now Bangladesh was part of colonial India.
The people of today’s Bangladesh are heir to a colonial system that has left them devastatingly impoverished.
So you could blame the British Empire, But the sun set on the British Empire long ago.
You could point a finger at American imperialism now, I suppose. Throughout history one American administration after another has used military might to enforce oppressive trade policies around the world.
You could even blame me.
As the bereaved in Bangladesh bury their dead, I sit in my den in Florida and watch the birds take off from the lake and soar above the sunlit trees. Yes, I have to confess that I, too, share the blame – for passively accepting my good fortune in a cruel and unjust world.
How about you?