Denial No Longer Plausible
Clothing has long been a sweet deal for Globalization. The world’s poor are desperate enough to work dirt cheap for contractors kept at arm’s length from those actually buying the labor to supply the consumer market in North America and Europe. So cheap in fact that the global merchants can simultaneously reap enormous profits while keeping consumer prices relatively low in the industrialized countries–softening the impact of falling wages and elimination of decent paying jobs. It’s win-win–except for garment workers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the displaced former garment workers in the industrialized countries.
As unions asserted their presence in places such as Egypt and El Salvador, Bangladesh has become an outsourcing favorite. About four million–eighty percent women–toil in textile and garment plants in one of the poorest nations on Earth. The overseers contracted by companies such as Walmart and GAP to hire and manage the workforces that supply them are tight-fisted, stern taskmasters. Average starting pay is 38 dollars–a month.
Over 1800 garment workers have been killed on the job in Bangladesh over the past eight years–mainly through fires and building collapse. Until recently, this carnage has been largely ignored in the American and European mass media. The real clients of these sweatshops often deny any connection to the deathtraps.
Only now, after the death of more than 1100 mostly women garment workers in a single criminally negligent workplace incident, are we beginning to hear about the appalling conditions where America’s lowest price always clothes are produced. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a compelling interview with an injured survivor rescued from the rubble three hours after the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza, housing five factories.
Some commentators seek to give a cynical twist to the story–that consumer demand for cheap clothes is what reluctantly drives merchants and contractors to such deadly, inhumane exploitation. They suggest we are hypocrites if we complain while we are the beneficiaries of cheap, stylish threads. Better we keep our eyes closed and mouths shut while displaying the free advertising logos gracing our garments.
But Steven Greenhouse, writing in the New York Times, was among the first to warn that junkyard dog might not hunt,
“A wide spectrum of government officials, investors and religious groups are warning major retailers like Walmart, Benetton and Gap that they could face financial repercussions from consumers, damage to their stock value or sustained public protests if they do not adopt stricter garment manufacturing standards….the United States trade representative notified Bangladesh that Washington might withdraw, suspend or limit that country’s trading privileges. The trade representative was responding in part to a complaint that the AFL-CIO filed, asserting that the Bangladesh government had worked in concert with its apparel manufacturers to suppress labor unions.”
A few days later, the British Guardian reported,
“Some of the world’s biggest fashion chains, including H&M, Zara, C&A, Tesco and Primark, have signed up to a legally binding agreement to help finance fire safety and building improvements in the factories they use in Bangladesh. The move came on Monday, as the Bangladeshi government agreed to allow the country’s four million garment workers to form trade unions without permission from factory owners, a major concession to campaigners lobbying for widespread reforms….On Sunday, the government also announced a plan to raise the minimum wage for garment workers, who are paid some of the lowest wages in the world to sew clothing bound for global retailers.”
It will take at least six months for the Bangladesh government to set up its machinery for implementing the deal. And, while any wage improvement will be welcomed by the impoverished workers, even a doubling of their monthly wage would only bring them up to the daily minimum wage in the USA–itself poverty level by our standards.
The track record of similar past deals is not good. And even Bangladesh has competitors in the race to the bottom. The military dictatorship in neighboring Burma, now certified by the Obama White House as moving toward democracy, has hopes of joining the consumer supply chain as well. And, in a story about workers killed in a roof collapse at a Phnom Penh shoe factory Reuters reports, “Cambodia has seen a rush of investment in recent years, especially into the shoe and garment sector, with Western and Asian firms attracted by its low-cost labor. The International Monetary Fund says garments account for about 80 percent of the Southeast Asian country’s exports.”
Not all major brands are signing on to the new agreement. The most notable holdouts so far are Walmart and GAP. GAP doesn’t like the legally binding part. Walmart says they will do their own safety inspections of their contractors and will pull orders from those who don’t fix dangers. But they have made no offer of additional money for workplace safety measures.
The Globalization phase of capitalism has adversely impacted workers in countries rich and poor alike–including the USA. Relatively cheap clothing of increasingly disappointing quality is a poor consolation for dead workers abroad and shrinking wages and jobs here at home. The AFL-CIO trade complaint was a helpful step but we need much more active cross-borders solidarity with workers struggling against bosses everywhere.
And Closer to Home
Another recent workplace disaster was the fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Company that killed fourteen, injured many more, and devastated much of the small town of West, Texas. A follow up story in the New York Times showed fewer “job-killing” regulations in place there than were technically on the books in Bangladesh.
“Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.
“But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities– more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.”
What Goes Up In the Air But Never Comes Down?
Of course, we should never say never. But it can take millennia for carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere to dissipate. A recently published survey of thousands of peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals has found 97.1 percent agreed that climate change is caused by human activity–such as burning massive amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas. During this past week, CO2 atmospheric concentration broke the 400 parts-per-million barrier. Best available science estimates this is the highest concentration in three million years–long before humans started roaming our planet.
A much more moderate balance of carbon dioxide between atmosphere, plant life, and oceans was in fact an essential ingredient in producing the biosphere that proved conducive to the thriving of our species. The greenhouse effect of atmospheric carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, along with increasing acidity of our oceans from being a “carbon sink,” puts our biosphere in imminent danger. My generation won’t live to see the worst effects that will result if corrective action is not soon taken but our grandchildren will–and it will be too late for them to do much about it.
So why did the hubbub about Benghazi talking points, IRS demands for paperwork from political groups seeking tax exempt status, and the burial ground for the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, push this story about a new threat level of developing global catastrophe out of the news cycles?
There’s no mystery involved here. The global capitalist economy revolves around the use of fossil fuels. It’s been very rewarding for the ruling class that calls the shots. Their absolute wealth–as well as their share of the distribution of wealth–is also setting all time records. That’s why they ignore or deny the danger and urge us to do the same. If need be, they witch-hunt climate scientists, threaten our jobs, and, in some parts of the world, employ paramilitary murderers to stop challenges to their environmental exploitation.
The class that thrives on the profits flowing from destruction of our biosphere is not going to voluntarily change their ways. If human civilization as we know it is to survive the crisis they created and continue to fuel their rule must be replaced.
Science has given us both an understanding of this crisis we confront–and realistic alternatives that can halt and reverse the threats short of environmental disaster. We should be eternally grateful for that. But they are few and lack the clout to take on the climate-wreckers.
There is only one stratum of society that has both the material interest and the power to take on the bosses and bankers running the show today–the working class. We are many. We do all the work. It’s always our boots on the ground in every war.
The future of humanity depends on our ability to rejuvenate class consciousness, to organize both industrially and politically and–most important of all–incorporate system change, not climate change in to our goals. Our species survives only if and when we prevail in the fight for both class and climate justice.
A New Home for the WIR
With this edition we begin to anchor our Week In Review column on a WordPress-powered companion to the kclabor.org site. This is part of a giant workaround required by the failure of obsolete Microsoft FrontPage software to reliably publish to our host server. As we work with new Site Spinner software from Virtual Mechanics to take back control of the KC Labor website–if all goes well beginning Monday, May 20–WordPress will be the venue for new material. Our Monday-Friday daily news digest will resume on the Labor Advocate Blog May 20 as well. Stay tuned and thanks for your patience.
That’s all for this week.