During the busy holiday season, who has time to pay attention to where those gifts we are buying are made and under what conditions? After all, even the stores selling those sweaters and nightgowns claim to be clueless when it comes to how and where workers stitching those garments are treated.
Most of the clothes in our closets have been made in China. Now, garment manufacturers have discovered that they can get clothing made for even less in Bangladesh which has the lowest garment wages in the world.
There are over 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh and fire code violations have been found in over a third of them. More than 600 factory workers have died in fires there since 2005. In November, a blaze at one of those factories, Tarzeen Fashions Ltd., killed 112 workers- most of them young rural women who earned $45 a month. When the fire alarm went off, the workers were told to ignore it, it was a test. "The factory did not have ceiling sprinklers or an outdoor fire escape," according to an article in the New York Times last Friday.
I immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City in March, 1911, when 146 people died in less than 20 minutes. This was one of the worst factory fires in American history and got the country to move on protecting workers. The New York State Legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission to "investigate factory conditions in this and other cities and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazard or loss of life among employees through fire, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases." But how are we protecting our workers now -- the ones in countries like Bangladesh who make clothes for some of America's biggest retailers like Walmart, Disney and Sears?
The New York Times article reports, "David Hasanat, the chairman of the Viyellatex Group, one of the country's most highly regarded garment manufacturers, pointed out that global apparel retailers often depend on hundreds of factories to fill orders. Given the scale of work, retailers frequently place orders through suppliers and other middlemen who, in turn, steer work to factories that deliver low costs, a practice he said is hardly unknown to Western retailers and clothing brands. The order for Walmart's Faded Glory shorts, documents show, was subcontracted from Simco Bangladesh Ltd. , a local garment maker.
"It is an open secret to allow factories to do that," Mr. Hasanat said. "End of the day, for them it is the price that matters." And that is the problem. We can buy more and more goods at cheaper prices than ever. But, as Richard Locke, Deputy Dean of MIT's Sloan School of Management said, "Somebody is bearing the cost of it, and we don't want to know about it. The people bearing the cost were in this fire."
We should know about it, and we should be as outraged as the Bangladeshis are, as outraged as we were after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire "which led to sweeping reforms of American sweatshops." We don't really want to change our shopping habits. We love our stuff. Why think about the 15 year old girl who worked in dangerous and dehumanizing conditions to make it? But it is the holiday season, so maybe we should think about her and how we can protect her as she sews those gifts we are buying.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.