Monday December 3, 2012

DALTON

The tragic fire that killed 112 workers at the Tazreen garment factory in Bangladesh bears an eerie and disturbing resemblance to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took place 100 years ago: on March 25, 1911 in New York City. That fire claimed the lives of 146 workers, almost all of them women and girls. As in the Bangladeshi disaster, they were trapped by exit doors that were locked and emergency exits that were blocked to keep them in -- ostensibly to increase productivity and prevent theft.

The youngest Triangle Shirt waist victims were only 14 years old -- my daughter’s age. Some perished in the fire and smoke, some jumped from 8th, 9th, and 10th floor windows in desperation and plummeted to their deaths. One hundred years ago, the garment workers were primarily Jewish and Italian immigrants: people who’d fled crushing poverty in their home countries, or who -- like my great-grandparents -- had fled pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe, to find a better life in America.

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While they found themselves largely free from outright persecution or starvation on our shores, they were met with different kinds of exploitation and deprivation. From mines to railroads to garment factories, they were subject to inhumane work hours and conditions that more economically established Americans would never submit to. Perhaps need less to say, echoes of this disparity still resonate today, but with geographically different immigrants (Latin Ameri can) and different industries (agriculture and slaughterhouses, for example).

What has changed between 1911 and today in the United States? For one thing, unionization. The Triangle Shirt waist fire spurred the founding of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, which successfully fought for workers’ rights and improved labor conditions. And for another thing, regulation. Over the years, a slew of building codes and occupational health & safety codes have been implemented on federal, state, and local levels, and they continue to be refined to this day. Their existence -- and their rigorous enforcement -- is why we don’t have similar factory tragedies in the United States anymore.

Republicans and Libertar ians who decry "big government" are deluded when they insist that private industry, left to its own devices, will ensure the well being of employees, or the environment. Without regulation, people get hurt. Sometimes it’s through sudden disasters like fires, mine explosions, or building collapses, and sometimes it’s through decades of exposure to pollutants and toxic chemicals.

These same Republicans are often at the helm of -- or invest heavily in -- large companies who "outsource" manufacturing labor. As long as it drives their profits, or shareholder profits, outsourcing is considered an inevitable and proper feature of modern capitalism.

Many of these companies -- like Wal-Mart and Target -- do their best to scrutinize their supply chains and to refrain from doing business with foreign contractors who don’t maintain good health and safety, or child labor, standards. But as is evident from the recent Bangladeshi disaster, this voluntary self-monitoring process is not foolproof. Even though Wal-Mart had ceased doing business with Tazreen Fashions Ltd. "well before the blaze" be cause they had known about its safety problems, subcontractors lower down the supply chain violated their agreements with Wal-Mart (and other U.S. retailers including Sears and Disney), and contracted for product from Tazreen.

Subcontractors do this all the time simply because they can. They’re driven to make their little piece of the process as cheap to operate and as profitable as possible -- and with little or no government oversight, that’s exactly what they do. The Associated Press and The Eagle reported that there have been over 300 garment factory fire deaths in Bangladesh alone since 2006.

That’s to say nothing of the millions of employees subject to hazardous working conditions throughout Asia. And it’s not limited to textiles: the conditions in Chinese computer and electronics manufacturing and recycling industries would make your hair curl.

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As long as there are developing countries that don’t have organized labor or the rigorous regulations we enjoy (yes, enjoy: unions brought you the weekend, and regulations brought you ventilation systems and material safety data sheets), and as long as they have legions of workers eager to put in hard hours for little money, they will remain lucrative places to outsource American manufacturing jobs. Only when there is international parity in environmental regulations, labor standards, and health and safety regulations and enforcement -- necessarily and reasonably raising the cost of production -- will American workers be able to compete on a truly equal footing in the global marketplace.

And only when other countries adopt and enforce stringent environmental and labor regulations, will their people be protected from those who’d exploit them for a buck -- or for a Bangladeshi taka, a euro, a rupee, or a yuan.

Jenny Gitlitz, an occasional Eagle contributor, developed the product review process for Green Depot, a retailer of environmentally-friendly building materials.