This is the first part of a new series on the influence of capitalism on our daily lives and that of others
The collapse of Rana Plaza, a building in Bangladesh containing five garment-making factories, is only the latest in a long series of such tragedies. This industry, which contributes $20 billion every year to the economy of that country, is notorious for its hazardous workplaces and subsistence-level wages.
Since November, when 122 garment workers died in a fire, there have been 40 other fires in Bangladeshi factories, killing nine more workers, and injuring 400. The number of bodies recovered from this building collapse now stands at 382, with many more seriously injured. Many workers are still unaccounted for.
It is alleged that the first four floors of the building were built without a permit; later four more floors were added and finally, as the last straw, a ninth floor. A lack of proper regulation has led to this and many other tragedies.
The day before the collapse, deep cracks in the concrete outer walls of the building became visible and the police ordered it evacuated. But the factory owners ignored these orders, and forced more than 2,000 people to keep working. Then the building caved in.
There is more than enough blame to go around for these tragedies: the Bangladeshi government; the owners of the buildings, factories, and brands; then there are also the retailers and even consumers, like you and me.
Thus far two owners of the factories, two government engineers, and the building owner, who had been on the run, have been arrested. His wife was arrested first, apparently, to force her husband to turn himself in. People in Bangladesh are now asking for the death penalty for the building owner.
Yet such tragedies are preventable. These tragedies represent part of what I call the tragic cost of capitalism. There are many more costs, as I intend to show in future posts. What is happening in Bangladesh is only the tip of the iceberg, and is not the most egregious example of the damage that capitalism has done.
According to reports, the garment workers are paid as little as $38 a month. Even China cannot compete with such wages, and is shifting work to Bangladesh.
The problem is greed at every level. It illustrates one of the most serious shortcomings of capitalism. This economic system pervades just about aspect of daily life around the globe. It is more than just an economic theory, it determines and shapes much of everyone's life in every country of the world.
Add Bangladesh to the list of countries racing to the bottom
The desire of shoppers to buy affordable clothes has driven retailers further and further afield to find factories to make products at lower and lower prices. Whereas for many years clothes had a "Made in China" label, today "Made in Bangladesh" is increasingly common. China is increasingly losing business to countries that can make goods even cheaper than they can.
In Bangladesh not only are the wages rock bottom, safety standards are ignored, all in the name of greater profits for everyone along the supply chain. Factory owners lease space in substandard buildings so that they can make more money. The owners of the buildings, of course, profit enormously. The owners of the brands outsource their orders to these factories, so that they too can increase their profits. And finally the retailers stock these cheap brands because of consumer demand. The consumers benefit from the low prices.
Greed drives the entire process, from the consumer to the huge multinationals that own the brands and the retailers. The victims are the workers who are desperate for work even at abysmal wages and are willing to endure terrible working conditions in buildings that are firetraps and in danger of imminent collapse.
Cost determines everything. Everyone one wants the lowest price. But the greatest cost, which is ignored by many, is borne by the workers whose lives are threatened and whose families may lose their breadwinners.
Slowly consumers are waking up to this tragic reality. Some are boycotting products manufactured in such factories in Bangladesh, but that does solve the problem, since the workers are the ones who will suffer the most from such a boycott.
A group of Bangladeshi and international unions have recently drawn a nine-page safety proposal that would ditch government inspections. because they can easily be corrupted. Instead, the report has proposed an independent inspectorate to oversee all the 4000 garment factories in Bangladesh. The major retailers, not surprisingly, objected that this proposal would be legally binding and too costly.
Walmart's representative said about this proposal that it was "not financially feasible ... to make such investments." Walmart's only concern seems to be its bottom line: it wants to make money and lots of it.
The problem at its deepest level is money, or better the love of money, as the Bible teaches. The Bible does not condemn wealth as such. Abraham, for example, was a very wealthy man by the standards of his day. Instead, the Bible condemns greed, by which it means people who love money, more than people, in fact, and who will do almost anything for the sake of money.
Greedy people are not hard to find. They are not found only on Wall Street, or in the corner offices of major corporations. They are found on every street, in every city, in every country; in other words, everywhere. Some of us are greedy as well.
Many people shop regularly at Walmart. By doing so, they are complicit in the greed of this company and at the same time display their own greed. They may excuse their shopping there as stewardship, but how many are aware of the enormous cost in term of human misery of the products that Walmart sells?
Walmart is only one example, but it is certainly the most well-known. For many retailers such products are a small part of the merchandise they sell, and they may not even be fully conscious of the conditions in the factories where each of them are made.
Consumer boycotting is not the answer, since poor workers will suffer the most. Yet consumers will need to find ways to put pressure on governments everywhere to better regulate these garment factories. Stricter enforcement of existing regulations is necessary so that the workers in the garment factories can be properly protected. Also they need better wages.
There is a human rights issue here, as well as an ethical one. We cannot eradicate greed, but we can alleviate the situation of those who are suffering the most as a result of the greed of others. There have already been many calls for justice from both inside Bangladesh and outside the country. Riots have occurred daily in Dhaka after the building collapsed and supporters of these workers are springing up everywhere.
If you live in Canada, you will probably be aware by now that many of the workers inside the collapsed building were making clothes for Joe Fresh, a Canadian brand that is owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd. This company sells the clothing at their grocery stores and other retail outlets across the country under many different names -- Loblaws, Real Canadian Superstore, No Frills, Valu-Mart, Independent, and Zehrs Markets.
You can help by signing this petition to tell Joe Fresh and Loblaws that all the factory workers deserve safe workplaces: http://www.publicresponse.ca/blog/lets-tell-joe-fresh-and-loblaws-that-we-demand-better.
Naming and shaming is more effective than a boycott. These companies need to become more responsible for the products they sell, not only by becoming better informed about the working conditions but also by pressuring their suppliers to improve these conditions.
Loblaws has just announced a plan to compensate garment workers' families, as has Primark, a British firm. Both companies are largely owned by the Weston family of Canada. But such compensation does not go far enough; it does not yet address the safety issue.
If you live elsewhere, there are maybe other petitions circulating in your country. All retailers and companies involved in the garment industry should be sent a clear message that such substandard workplaces are not acceptable any longer and that the workers deserve better conditions.