Inside the garment factory, hundreds of poor women sewed the clothes that filled our shops. The factory’s owners had been warned that the place was hazardous; they ignored the warnings. When disaster struck, the death toll was horrendous.
That describes the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 Jewish and Italian immigrants, many under 18, roasted or plunged to their deaths after the owner of the Manhattan clothing factory ignored fire-safety warnings and locked workers inside.
It also seems to be what happened this week on the outskirts of Dhaka when an eight-storey complex collapsed after its owners had reportedly ignored government warnings about dangerous fractures in the building. The death toll has topped 300. Many of the clothes they were sewing were for European and North American consumers, including some being made for Joe Fresh, owned by grocery giant Loblaw Cos. Ltd.
That leads to uncomfortable questions: If you’re wearing Joe Fresh, do you have hundreds of deaths on your hands? Are our clothing bargains creating poverty, misery and death in poor countries? Would the world be better off if we didn’t buy clothes made in Bangladesh?
Those questions are understandable, but they miss the larger context. Garment-factory w orkers in Bangladesh, China, India, Mexico and other corners of the developing world are not victims. They have sought out this work, and they want to be agents of their own fate. They often get a raw deal, but they’re enduring these jobs because the jobs are an improvement over any other alternative – and their engagement with the West’s consumer markets can be the vehicle to greater empowerment.
We shouldn’t forget our own experience. The Triangle fire changed the shape of North American cities, factories and working lives: It’s the reason why fire-escape stairs and sprinklers are now ubiquitous; it’s also part of the reason why blue-collar wages, working conditions and child-labour laws improved in the decades that followed, creating the last great period of upward mobility.
There’s good reason to hope for a similar transformation in Bangladesh – especially if consumers demand high standards from their brands, as they have done with considerable success in China.
I’ve spent time in Dhaka’s garment mills (always uninvited), and they’re crude, raw-cement caverns of tightly packed labour where the hours are very long and the wages are very low. They’re nowhere near the worst needle-trade shops I’ve visited – those would be in China’s interior, where clothes are made for Asian markets – but they’re among the cheapest for foreign manufacturers.
Bangladesh has boomed because workers and consumers have demanded higher standards from the world’s largest manufacturing district, China’s Pearl River region. As Chinese living standards have risen and internal rural-to-urban migrants there became less readily available, that region has raised its minimum wage by 5 per cent to 15 per cent every year for the past five years. Western companies no longer go to China because they want the cheapest labour – those seeking the lowest prices have shifted to Bangladesh.
But Bangladesh is changing. The garment boom has propelled millions of people to the cities, raising living standards and lowering family sizes. Studies show the garment boom has reduced poverty sharply and raised the status of women. This has coincided with a five-year period of democratic stability. But the cities are corrupt and virtually ungoverned – almost certainly the root cause of the building collapse. Changes to building codes, safety standards and hygiene are unlikely to happen unless pressure comes from outside.
We know it can work. In 2010, Dhaka’s garment workers held huge protests: They won a historic minimum-wage increase of 80 per cent, to around $50 a month. And pressure from North American companies, chastened and embarrassed by events such as last year's lethal fire, has increased safety and working standards in factories that sell to the West. Similar pressure can force companies to pay workers fairly and keep them safe from disaster and abuse.
The garment boom has helped reduce poverty in the West (by reducing clothing costs) and in the East (by providing wages far higher than subsistence farming or casual labour). The next step is to remain connected, and to demand the sort of workplace standards that should be universal. Bangladeshi workers should have the same protections that our own workers won, through tragedy and horror, a century ago.