…at a discount.
I am of course talking about the fire that broke out in Tazreen Fashion Factory in Bangladesh on Saturday, November 24th. Employees were hard at work in the factory, making clothes for Walmart, Disney, and perhaps other American labels when the fire broke out. Under normal circumstances, these people face working conditions unheard of in the contemporary U.S. According to one source, they earn 18 to 26 cents an hour and put in 72-81 hours a week, experiencing physical and mental abuse from managers on a regular basis. But of course last Saturday, all that ended, at least for 112 of them.
So, is it fair to suggest that these people died for you and I? After all, you probably didn’t decide their hours or their wages, much less pick their managers, lock an exit, or order them back to work when word first broke out of a fire. Neither did I. Someone else did all of that. You and I merely chose what clothes to wear; we were not consulted on the conditions under which they were made.
But of course that is precisely the point.
Events such as the Tazreen fire, or the horrible working conditions which preceded it, do not occur because any malevolent human being wills them to happen. They are the outcome of countless individual decisions made by perfectly reasonable human beings. You and I want quality clothing at a reasonable price. The retailers wants to make a profit, as do the distributors, and so on. All these seemingly innocent decisions combine to create a market for labor manufactured under conditions which constitute a living Hell for the workers in those factories. Last Saturday the fires of that Hell claimed the lives of people condemned not by the conscious choice of any living person, but by the invisible hand of the marketplace.
Just to be clear, I do not wish to deny the other, more familiar, metaphor of the invisible hand. At least I do not mean to deny the realities which Adam Smith used the metaphor to describe, the process by which individuals pursuing their own self interest may indeed contribute to the common good. I do not deny that such things happen. I deny that they are always the case, and I assert that they occur right alongside a process that is far more insidious than the common metaphor suggests. If the market may be thought a God, that God is a Janus-faced deity at best, content to restore market equilibrium regardless of the human cost. Market Equilibrium is simply not a standard of moral value; it may be achieved with tears as easily as it does with a smile.
What happened in Bangladesh is hardly a new story. A sweatshop full of workers, locked inside, people burning, others jumping to their deaths. Last week’s tragedy recalls the events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. Then it was primarily Jewish immigrants plunging to their death, or burning in the flames. Last week it was foreigners living in their own country. Either way, it is people without much say over the workings of American government laboring to supply goods for the American public (and other nations to be sure). Separated by half the globe and a hundred years, the stories could hardly be more similar if an evil genius had produced them as a message for all mankind to see.
But who would see it now that couldn’t have seen it before the fire happened? The dynamics at stake in this fire have been clear for the better part of a century, if not longer still. It is a question of political boundaries, and the way those boundaries limit government response to exploitive working conditions.
In the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, America has seen countless reforms aimed at protecting the rights and safety of workers. Quite a number of these have carried the force of Federal Law under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The rationale for laws protecting workers remains simple enough. They exist to protect workers from conditions deemed unacceptable by the public at large (and one is tempted to say by decent folk anywhere).
Some would maintain that the nature of a free labor contract requires no such regulations, nor tolerance of unions. Workers are free to decline the contract, so the argument goes; is that not enough? Such arguments ignore the realities of job conditions like those in Tazreen or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. But the problem with such an approach is less that it fails to deal with the inequalities of labor contracts than it is a willful dismissal of the lives of workers who end up in such places. It is less an approach that fails to account for the limitations of the market than it is an approach that sees in the lives of people working themselves to death little other than a unit of value in a mathematical equation.
Thankfully that argument has been defeated in every Federal Law regulating maximum hours, child labor, workplace safety, and a host of other protections, however inadequate they may sometimes prove to be. But why do such laws need to be made at the Federal level? The Supreme Court nailed the answer to this question damned well in United States v. Darby, 1941.
…interstate commerce should not be made the instrument of competition in the distribution of goods produced under substandard labor conditions which competition is injurious to the commerce and to the states from and to which the commerce flows.
Simply put, if we are to leave the protection of workers to the states, then the end result will be a race to the bottom, with that state granting the least protections becoming a magnet for factory work, all at the expense of workers in that state. And in the long run no state could long hold to high standards in the treatment of workers without risking a good deal of lost commerce. In the end, the only plausible hope of resolving the problems of exploitative (or even dangerous) working conditions lies in the prospect of Federal laws preventing trade in products made under those conditions.
We still have those laws in America, and American workers are (at least in theory, and commonly in practice) relatively safe from the scale of exploitation leading to events such as the fire of 1911. But of course many of the world’s developing nations do not, and that is precisely what many large scale corporations like about them. Several generations of American political leadership (Democrat as well as Republican) have done very little to protect American markets from competition with the products of such factories. We’ve already seen the deleterious effects of that process in the slow drain of jobs outsourced to other nations. And last weekend we saw the harmful effects on people now getting those jobs.
In effect, the free market as American diplomacy has envisioned it has opened up opportunities for exploitation on a scale most Americans can now hardly imagine. And of course we don’t have to, because it happens so far away to people we will never know. We notice the scarcity of jobs; we do not notice the lives wasted doing the work that has left our shores, at least not until events like this. But this is the cost of a global market wandering freely across the political boundaries of nations.
Simply put, there is a link between the difficulties American workers have in finding jobs and the difficulties of workers like those in Bangladesh have in finding a working exit from their own jobs.
The public is hardly capable of stopping such events as public pressure is always behind the curve. We learn about such working conditions through disasters, but not in time to stop them. The self policing efforts of companies like Walmart are hardly sufficient, and their conflict of interest should be perfectly apparent to anyone capable of reading the price tag on a shirt or a skirt. But then we pay the price in lost jobs all the while wage slavery flourishes in other parts of the world, driven by demands shaped here, at least while what’s left of the middle class still has money to spend.
I’m not arguing for any particular solution to this sort of problem, but I am increasingly impatient with those who don’t see this sort of thing as a problem at all, with those who see in the workings of the market a uniformly benevolent force, those who would pretend that all will be well, or as well as it could be, if we just keep governments from interfering with business.
If we just let the market run its course, some would say, the world will in the long run be a better place.
Last weekend the market ran its course.
It consumed a hundred and twelve people.