A garment worker who soldiers said was pulled alive from the rubble reacts as he walks on his own at the site. (Kevin Frayer/AP
Before you go out and get that ‘must have’ summer outfit that’s on sale, consider how much blood there might be on it. How much suffering and death is required so that we consumers can get a good deal on our clothes?
How about more than 1,000 deaths? The death toll in the massive factory collapse in Bangladesh is now at 1,127. After 19 days, authorities in Bangladesh are ending the search. There are perhaps twice that many injuries, many of them very severe.
But change is coming to Bangladesh.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building may be the “Newtown” for the international garment industry. Just like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has galvanized efforts to reign in the out-of-control gun industry, changes are being made in Bangladesh.
In a break-through for Bangladeshi garment workers, just today the government agreed to allow the country’s 4 million garment workers to form trade unions without the prior permission of the factory owners. This is a huge step forward for workers. This follows the decision made by the cabinet and announced yesterday that they plan to raise the minimum wage for garment workers, who are paid some of lowest wages in the world. In fact, Pope Francis called these “slave wages.”
The changes just announced are critical to effecting real change in Bangladesh. That country’s garment industry has a notoriously poor safety record. A year ago, when a factory fire claimed 117 lives, most of the workers who died were on the first and second floors but could not escape because there were not enough exits.
What a horrible mirror of the death toll in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City just over 100 years ago. The workplace conditions in the 19th century in this country were appalling beyond belief. A fire in a substandard garment factory killed 146 workers, primarily women and girls. One reason the death toll was so high was that the doors were kept locked during the workday.
These unsafe conditions in the garment industry, as I have written, form part of my family history, as my Hungarian immigrant ancestors settled in New York City and worked in the sweatshops of the garment industry and labored in these same dangerous and exhausting conditions.
And my ancestors formed unions, like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Unionization and reforms in workplace safety have helped to secure safer workplaces in this country.
In fact, one of the witnesses to the Triangle Shirtwaist factor fire was a social worker named Francis Perkins.
Perkins was Labor Secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945, and played a central role establishing many of the labor laws we have today.
Changing a country’s laws is paramount for better working conditions to be achieved. Thus the new laws on unionization and on raising the minimum wage in Bangladesh represent an important step forward for a huge business in the country. Last year, Bangladesh’s ready-made garments made up 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion in annual exports. The country has about 4,500 garment factories that make clothes for stores including Tesco, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Kohl’s and Carrefour.
But now consumer pressure must be brought to bear so that international companies, not wanting to pay for safety and higher wages for improved labor conditions in Bangladesh, will not just move their business to other countries like India or Vietnam.
It is not easy to be an ethical consumer today. Remember the wonderful International Ladies Garment Workers Union tune: “Look for the union label, when you are buying a coat, dress or gloves. Remember somewhere our union is sewing ” All you had to do was “buy union” and that was that, sang the ladies of the ILGWU.
Not now. Now, in the age of globalization, you have to be aware of all the factors that cause worker exploitation in the manufacture of your clothes, and you have to do some research to make informed choices on how to act.
Today, the ethical consumer cannot make substantive change only by choices in consumption, or in boycotts. Today, the struggle is global.
The Clean Clothes Campaign is an example. It is an alliance of organizations in 15 European countries. Members include trade unions and non-governmental agencies covering a broad spectrum of perspectives and interests, such as women’s rights, consumer advocacy and poverty reduction. There is a partnership with similar type organizations in garment-producing countries to deal with the specific situations and help workers in those countries achieve their goals.
The changes to the law announced in Bangladesh yesterday and today are to be celebrated, but solemnly. How much blood of dead and injured garment workers is required, either in 1911 or in 2013, and in years before and in between, for there to be legal unionization, fair wages, and workplace safety?
And will the laws actually be implemented, and enforced?
And how much more death and injury and suffering from low wages will we see in the future as multi-national companies try to evade their responsibilities to workers to make a better profit, and simply go elsewhere?
This I do know. The clothes on my back really do connect me with the people who made them in the most intimate way. We as consumers cannot turn our backs on them as they are with us, even now, in the very clothes that touch our skin.
In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called on humanity to recognize that we are bound by “a single garment of destiny.”
A single garment.
Thistlethwaite is author, most recently, of “#Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.“