Adam Smith, Bangladesh, Diplomacy, Economics, Free Market, Sweatshops, Tazreen, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Walmart
A hundred and twelve people died horribly last weekend. They died so that you and I can look fabulous.
…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.
I want to use this comment to put up some links to various articles on the Tazreen fire.
I only found one other article on the comparison between this and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/50014829/ns/world_news-south_and_central_asia/t/bangladesh-echoes-triangle-fire-nyc/#.ULvkLaMu20o), though I have to believe there are others.
This is the page for the Institute for Global Labor and Human rights. They have a number of articles on the subject: http://www.globallabourrights.org/alerts?id=0402
Additional Links in no particular order:
kevin meyers said:
We vote with our dollars every day, and I wish people would truly wake up to that. As a society we love to purchase inexpensive clothing, never thinking about the true cost (environmental, human, and social) of those purchases. There are reasons clothes in so many of our stores cost so little, and those reasons are NOT good.
Thank you Kevin. It is a damned shame to think that such a simple act as clothing yourself could hurt someone, but that does appear to be the case, doesn’t it?
Adventures in Kevin's World said:
It is unfortunately the case that people are hurt but no one cares. There may be a *minor* fuss in the media when something like a sweatshop fire occurs, but by a week later everyone has forgotten about it.
I love the people who proclaim that they want “American made” goods, but aren’t willing to actually pay the costs associated with that. And of course most people aren’t willing to pay the higher costs associated with organic cotton or hemp clothing, even though they are better for the humans involved in manufacture and the environment.
(steps off the soapbox for now at least)
All very sad.
I like this post because we all have a moral responsibility to balance our “need” for yet another ensemble at a reasonable price with the reality that the unintended consequence of such behavior is job losses at home and untenable working conditions abroad. Living in Africa now, I prefer to invest in my local economy by purchasing locally made goods whenever possible. I’d rather have fewer clothes in my closet than unintentionally contribute to such tragedies…
Hi Jeanette, what part of Africa do you live in? It’s interesting to look at communities that hold on to some part of their subsistence strategies. We definitely have that on the North Slope of Alaska, but of course people are also tied into the Global economy.
Thanks for this thoughtful post. A life-time boycott (started many years ago) of Walmart and other cheap clothing retailers is my answer to the stress this news causes me (though it won’t make a difference in the broader scope of things unless millions of people join me which is obviously not happening!). A few high-quality clothing items are better than a whole closetful of cheaply made sweatshop clothes, especially since they’re stained with the sweat and tears of suffering people … people I will never meet yet who exist nonetheless and who deserve to be treated fairly! It’s an emotional issue to me, thanks for helping me see it in a broader context.
Thank you, Judy. I think the boycotts may help insofar as the threat is sufficient to stimulate some voluntary reform, but I also think some form of regulatory power would be needed to really make it work. How to arrange it, or on what authority, is a different question.
Mary Jo Welch said:
It is interesting that you bring forward interstate commerce as a mechanism to slow/prevent the type of “race to the bottom” dealt by “the invisible hand.” It brought to mind an article I read earlier this week in the NYT about states’ deficits having increased remarkably since 2008 recession and yet they continue to pay out “incentives” for corporations to place plants, distribution centers, divisions and headquarters in their state. The interstate commerce law has nothing on this scheme which sees 48 states in deficit situations since 2008 and yet $80.3 BILLION is paid out, of taxpayer dollars, to these corporate entities to lure them to a state. They forsake earlier suitors for one with bigger “bling.”
With this “leak” in the protection of interstate commerce’s protection driven legislation, the “invisible hand” of corporate America abdicates its responsibility of corporate citizenship onto the backs of those who labor under lower minimum wage than previous suitors, less educated workforces, and “kettle belled” unemployed searching in desperation for jobs that are racing to the bottom due to states driving towards “better employment numbers” (Rick Perry and Texans like to brag about their employment rates? Check out the 19 BILLION spent on incentives and that the “allure” of employment “Texas-style” is a smaller paycheck, fewer benefits and higher percentages of low-wage employment sectors.
It isn’t only more largess for our wardrobes that endanger the world’s workforce. It is the incessant greed of corporations and politicians buying bragging rights, that, in reality are shameful indictments of those who, for the most part, elected them in ignorance of how said politicians generated their fabulous statistics and who paid for their “bragging rights.”
Thank you for adding this to the discussion, Mary Jo. Your comments are right on the money. …no pun intended.
The free market is profoundly amoral, which makes those who see it only as a force for good immoral. Ignorance = ignore-ance.
I think you hit the nail on the head.
Juliana Lightle said:
To the extent reasonably possible one can read labels, educate oneself, and make an effort to buy products that were made in a decent environment or at least more likely to have been made in such. Sadly, however, for certain products, this is not very easy to do unless you buy nothing.
You are absolutely right about that, and unfortunately so much of what companies do in cases like this amounts to little other than generating plausible deniability.
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A really interesting post – thank you for sharing the plight of the Bangladeshi garment workers (normally young girls) with your readers. As I live in Bangladesh this is a subject close to my heart.
I agree with you about your basic condemnation of Western excess and the demand for cheap goods. However, here is another thought for you that is very important – especially considering one or two of the comments that have been left so far:
If shops like Walmart are boycotted, they industry closes down and millions of garment workers in Bangladesh starve.
It’s a tough one to work out. How do we stop the exploitation from both the companies and the factory employers yet not put them in an even worse position?
I personally have no idea…
My first thought would be to ask you the same question, but I do have a few thoughts on the subject. they don’t add up to a comprehensive solution, just angles to look at:
1) Boycotts need not lead to closure; they can also lead to better working standards. Sadly, they can also lead to faux-reforms, but for the present I will just raise the possibility of using consumer pressure to improve working conditions rather than to end them.
2) On a much trickier note, I think it’s problematic to look at the introduction of global markets to third world countries as a solution to poverty. It seems that in many if not most cases, it’s factories (or factory farms, etc.) that introduce poverty, often disrupting local economies which were reasonably self-sufficient prior to the arrival of the market, so to speak. That may not always be the case, and worse yet, there may be no going back in many instances, but it does make me want to explore possibilities other than factory work for nations such as Bangladesh. How that works out in the long run would be for people with more knowledge of that region than I have to say.
Nicely put. I’ve heard this type thing also referred to as, “The high cost of low prices.” Unfortunately, low prices really DO come at a cost, in this case lost lives.
damned right, unfortunately.
Daniel, thank you for your comments. I share your passion and am reminded of our own country’s early years when workers endured similar conditions at work. The works of the novelist Upton Sinclair and the photographer Lewis Hine, along with others we don’t hear about so much, elevated our country’s opinion and treatment of laborers. Hopefully in young emerging countries like Bangladesh concerned citizens will arise to defend their fellow countrymen, because that is what it will take to effect change. For a view from inside the third world, here is an enlightening post: http://rezwanul.blogspot.com/2004/12/living-in-bangladesh-while-passing-our.html. I’m enjoying your blog very much.
Thank you Dave, especially for adding the progressive muckrakers to the discussion. It’s interesting to see now how some folks (like Glenn Beck especially) working so hard to demonize even the early twentieth-century reformers. I think we are seeing a profoundly religious movement in America towards a fundamentalism of the free market. And the utopia its admirers long for is precisely the guilded age, and the days when you could lock workers in the 10th floor of a factory without answering to anyone for doing so.
Who can find a moral man, a humble man devoted to God, who cares about the welfare of others but cares nothing for his own prosperity? If men like that ran the world, it might be a pretty good place to live for everybody. But avarice and hunger for power rise to the top like cream. They always have. It is the human condition. There is little to like, in my opinion, about the visible “religious movement” but at the same time, I do not think they are the only threat to a free market or a free people. I see bad people everywhere, and they all want a piece of me or my neighbor.
Fair enough, but I honestly think the point of government is to deal with man as he actually is, good or bad, which is why I think it’s important to come up with solutions that do not rely on voluntary moral decisions. Hence my interesting in the prospects for regulation.
I do agree. In our country’s case, do you think our government is too influenced by special interests to regulate the nation fairly?
Thank you for sharing this. Such an important issue of Social Justice.
Thank you Opreach
A great post, Daniel.
Yet another issue plaguing this dilemma is the relative short attention span of the American public (or people in general, I suppose). Already we see the national media has moved on, and therefore those who only get their information from such sources have also moved on. This is also precisely why you see more controversial laws and bills debated and passed in Congress the farther off a potential election is…the American public will never remember such controversy come polling time. Sad.
yes, the attention span of the public is a serious problem. We can only care about so many things at once, …even if they are all related, …which they usually are.
I work one day a week in an Op Shop (thrift store, to you ), and am regularly amazed to sort through huge bags of clothes that have been bought cheaply and hardly worn (often not at all). Maybe if we paid more in the first place we’d buy a lot less, which would probably be a good thing. Maybe not so much for those who Op shop.
Not a bad idea, really.
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