Death in Bangladesh and Texas: Will bottom-feeder industries and their corporate customers ever put people over profits?
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
How many tragedies will it take before the bottom-feeders of the global economy stop their relentless, immoral search for the world's cheapest wages and decide that fair labor costs and safe working conditions are a part of doing business?
When textile workers stood up against their bosses in New England and joined unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s, the industry packed its bags and moved to the U.S. South, where a new generation of oligarchs had succeeded antebellum plantation owners and promised a climate that may be post-slavery but not post-slave wages.
After six decades of what North Carolina mill worker Eva Bradshaw once described to me as being "just dollar bills to them, not humans," the South's textile workers also stood up and joined the Textiles Workers Union of America and its later emanation, the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).
Aided by the North American Free Trade Agreement and other government intervention on behalf of Big Business, the textile and garment industries' response was to pack their bags and move south to Mexico, where instead of paying a veteran Carolina mill hand $11 an hour it could get a Mexican worker for $1.47 an hour.
Then when Communist China decided that a capitalist underbelly works quite well with an authoritative regime that mouths Marx but tolerates little or no dissent among the proletariat, the textile and garment industries said, "Hmmmmmmmm."
Chinese workers earn a mere 64 cents an hour, industry leaders noticed, and soon their factories were off on the Orient Express of New Liberalism!
Then those pesky Chinese workers started complaining. After all, they were living in the last bastion of the "workers' paradise," right? Protests, strikes and walkouts became regular events along southeast China's industrial corridor in the 2000s. Finally Communist Party leaders realized they had to stop the constant turnover of Marx, Lenin and Mao in their graves and do something about workers' demands. For example, increase wages and let workers elect their own union leaders instead of having the government appoint a factory manager to wear both hats.
That wasn't welcome news to the gypsy textile and garment factories. So next stop: Bangladesh, which now ranks only behind China in the garment business, a country where the typical garment worker earns the equivalent of $37 a month.
That's why it should be a surprise to no one that yet another horror has been dealt workers in these industries. A poorly built, eight-story structure that housed multiple garment factories in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed this week, killing at least 275 and injuring many more. An unknown number of people remain trapped.
According to Bangladesh reports, workers were told to go to work despite the discovery of cracks in the building the day before the collapse.
Just last November, 112 workers were killed after a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They burned to death in a building without fire exits. The factory produced apparel for Walmart and Sam's Club as well as Sears, Disney, Sean Combs' Enyce and other Western companies.
Walmart and the Sears Holding Corp. have thus far opted out of joining a group of companies that have pledged to compensate victims of the Tazreen fire. In fact, Walmart apparently took a lead role in 2011 in opposing an effort to have companies step forward and fund improved safety measures among their suppliers in the South Asian garment industry.
An estimated 700 workers have died in Bangladesh factories since 2005.
Of course, the textile and garment industries don't have a monopoly on poorly monitored plants that endanger the lives of workers. This became clear in Texas this month with the explosion of a plant owned by the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. The explosion killed 14 and injured more than 160.
Labor writer Mike Elk has reported that the plant had no sprinklers, fire alarms and shut-off valves but it did have "1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate."
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.