Almost 700 people are confirmed dead and hundreds more have been seriously injured in the collapse of a building in Bangladesh two weeks ago that housed several factories that produced clothing for large brand-name companies and the retailers who sell these goods around the world, including Wal-Mart. This is the largest industrial disaster of its kind on record but, by no means, an isolated incident. In fact, only last November, 112 clothing factory workers were killed when they were trapped by a fire in the same suburb of the Bangladeshi capital. Both disasters could have been avoided but for the notoriously lax government oversight of such workplaces and the failure of global companies who contract with these types of operations to demand minimally safe working conditions. Groups like Human Rights Watch have been spotlighting these abuses and putting pressure on the Bangladeshi government, factory owners and international companies who benefit from the exploitation of cheap and unprotected workers -- but without notable success. They wonder how many incidents like these will need to occur before something is done.
The Bangladeshi fire is eerily reminiscent of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City that cost 146 workers -- mostly young Jewish immigrant women -- their lives because their employers had blocked the exits. Workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses were a fact of life in certain American industries a hundred years ago. While the mines, railroads, and mills accounted for the greatest number of casualties, these generally occurred far from public view. But the Triangle fire showed that no working person was safe from the shortcuts taken in pursuit of maximum profit at any cost. It occurred in Manhattan when people were leaving work and all of these eyewitnesses looked up at the upper floors of the burning building and saw a steady stream of young women pause helplessly amid the flames before jumping to their deaths on the sidewalk.
The Triangle fire was a pivotal event in showing the average American the consequences of pursuing profit and cheap products at any cost. Many of the spectators -- shop girls, middle-class housewives and society ladies alike -- were undoubtedly wearing the shirtwaist blouses that everyone had to have and the 146 young women lying dead on the sidewalk lost their lives producing. This shocking event helped galvanize the workplace reforms being sought by the labor unions and their progressive allies that resulted in legislation from which we all benefitted. These included occupational safety laws, worker's compensation, sick leave, unemployment insurance, vacations, medical benefits, a minimum wage and the 40-hour workday.
However, a combination of corporate globalization and government deregulation has eroded these protections over the last three decades. These forces have enabled multinational corporations to drive down their labor costs in this country by depressing wages and eliminating health benefits and pensions. Simultaneously, they have outsourced as much of their production as possible to poor countries, like Bangladesh, often with terrible consequences. Today's Bangladeshi dead and injured are the equivalent of those unprotected American miners, railroad workers and mill hands of a hundred years ago. Their families, friends, co-workers and neighbors witnessed and shared their suffering -- but they are invisible to us unless we care to look and act as those who witnessed the Triangle fire did and decide that such events should not be allowed to occur.
Is Wal-Mart the only villain in this story? Certainly not. Many others are implicated. But Wal-Mart has been the driving force behind race-to-the-bottom pricing, monopolistic bullying of their suppliers here and abroad, and the use of outsourcing to threaten and abuse their American employees. Sam Walton's multibillion-dollar heirs are the current version of the robber barons of a hundred years ago and just as insatiable in their quest for even more obscene fortunes, regardless of the cost in life, limb and fairness to those producing their wealth.
Among the remedies to the blatant abuses of monopolistic international corporations, like Wal-Mart, we should insist, by force of law, if necessary, that they ensure that working conditions in their overseas operations -- whether owned or contracted -- meet U.S. requirements. Is this likely to occur any time soon? Unfortunately not, given our big-business-beholden government. Nevertheless, we should turn up the pressure on Congress to examine the consequences of allowing unregulated multinational corporations to game the system. Too many American families are being forced to live on poverty wages and depend on taxpayer-funded food stamps and Medicaid, while their counterparts overseas risk losing their lives on a daily basis just to survive. The least we owe these folks is to boycott and publically denounce Wal-Mart and the rest.