Mar 1 2013

Industry as Victim in Workers’ Deaths

Deflecting blame for Bangladesh factory fires

Child workers, Bangladesh (Photo: Global Labour Rights)

Child workers employed by Bangladesh’s Smart Fashion sweatshop. (Photo: Global Labour Rights)

What should be done to prevent incidents like the January 26 fire at the Smart Fashion Export factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in which at least seven garment workers (three of them teenage girls) were killed, their escape impeded by a blocked exit and the absence of the most rudimentary fire safety equipment?

The answer for many would be: whatever is necessary. But to hear elite media tell it, it’s complicated—so much so that it’s not even clear who the victims were: the women crushed to death escaping flames, or the system that exploits and endangers them. Or else why would the New York Times (1/27/13) report begin, “In the latest blow to Bangladesh’s garment industry…”?

That’s standard language of course, but not innocuous. (The Times once headlined a report—8/5/99—that General Electric had so polluted the Hudson River as to poison marine life, “In Blow to GE, Agency Finds Fish in Hudson Unsafe to Eat.”) Coverage that’s framed this way seems unlikely to conclude that industry as currently conducted is itself the problem.

Another perennial is AP’s conclusion (1/27/13) that the nightmare at Smart is “raising questions about safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry.” One might say rather that it answered some; like, who is closer to the mark—activists who argue that transnational corporations’ relentless search for the lowest production costs inevitably results in cut corners, abuse and exploitation? Or owners who repeatedly assure that “clothes are manufactured in safe factories that are inspected through regular audits” (New York Times, 1/28/13)?

Once its labels are found in the wreckage, a company like Inditex (whose clothes were made at Smart) can count on corporate media to credit the company line that it “was unaware that the Smart Export factory was making its goods” (New York Times, 1/28/13). Wal-Mart clothes were made at Dhaka’s Tazreen factory, where survivors say many more than the reported 112 workers died in a fire last November. (A manager reportedly closed an exit gate after alarms sounded, telling employees: “Nothing has happened. Just keep working” —Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, 11/27/12). Weeks later, an AP piece (1/22/13) cited without elaboration Wal-Mart’s statement that the Tazreen factory “wasn’t authorized to make its clothes.”

“Nonsense,” says Worker Rights Consortium’s Scott Nova (CounterSpin, 11/30/12). At Wal-Mart in particular, “tight control of the supply chain as a means of minimizing cost is essentially a religion.” The companies “have the power to ensure that they know which factories are making their clothing. If they don’t know, that’s because they’ve chosen not to know.”

Even talk of “Bangladesh’s garment industry” is a kind of miscue; the “garment industry” is global. As factories in Bangladesh and China and Vietnam and Pakistan are making the clothes Americans wear, these are “our” workers; the reporting boilerplate that makes their exploitation something “foreign” needs to be reimagined.

A Bloomberg report (1/28/13) did so better than most, explaining that Inditex was a pioneer of “fast fashion,” in which the production cycle is compressed: Stores get to introduce new clothes more frequently, driving sales, but suppliers have to provide faster turnaround and more “flexibility,” which means working employees harder and subcontracting more work.

They do give space to the obligatory charge that the problem stems from “the American consumer,” who, a source claims, “wants the widest variety possible and they want it now.” Consumers, says another, “always want the new designs; they always want to stay in season.”

Of course, Americans were never asked whether they wanted teenage Bangladeshi girls locked into firetrap factories, much less answer, “Sure, as long as I’m on trend.” Nor can they be blamed, as many stories do, for seeking low prices. Notes Nova:

Labor costs as percentage of final retail price of garments is tiny, maybe 1 or 2 percent…. Which means that Gap and H&M and Wal-Mart and other big players in Bangladesh could easily afford to greatly increase wages and ensure that their suppliers undertake the necessary fire safety precautions with a minimal impact on the corporate bottom line and a minimal impact on prices to consumers.

The fact is, consumers weren’t asked, but corporations were. In April 2011, major retailers met in Dhaka to draw up a plan to improve fire safety at Bangladesh’s factories. As first reported by Bloomberg (12/5/12), the effort was scuttled when Wal-Mart and the Gap announced that preventing workers from dying would cost them too much: “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investment.”

That’s infuriating as hell. But complicated it isn’t.