Saturday, 11 May 2013

A Disaster that didn't need to be

“Laws are spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught.” -HonorĂ© 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.