It has been three weeks since the deadly fire at a Karachi garments factory consumed 289 lives. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in contemporary times but failed to blip on the global conscience radar. Not even in Britain, which was an importer of goods manufactured in the factory. Along with Britain, the factory is said to supply garments to other European Union states as well. The denim jackets and jeans the Brits and French are wearing might have come from that sweatshop in a seedy area of Karachi. One where the hands that made them might have turned to ashes by now.
True that the fire coincided with the killings of four American diplomats in Libya. An event that captured global media attention and continues to do so. American lives, after all, are worth more than those of petty workers in a third-world country. Still, they deserved more attention but the global media largely stayed silent on the tragedy.
This was not an isolated event either. In 2006, more than 50 workers died in a blaze at a Bangladeshi textile mill. The mass casualties reflect the rot caused by neo-industrialism and the business of outsourcing. Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and Vietnamese workers toil in the most inhumane of conditions, making wares for international brands. Apple, the epitome of modern consumer trends, gets its components made from China, in production units with questionable working conditions. Things are not better at other outsourced units in China either. A New York Times report found heinous violations of labor laws, low wages and underage workers toiling day and night to make wares for Western consumers.
The fact that millions are attached to the outsourced operations of western conglomerates should be of some interest to an average customer in London, Paris or New York. The harsh reality of the cruel working conditions, meager wages and modern slavery at some of these units should be alarming to some, if not all of the buyers. A Bangladeshi mother spends 16 hours a day at a garment factory while her children roam on the streets and often become victims of abuse. She hardly earns enough to put food on the table so getting her kids educated is out of the question. The same goes for her counterparts in Pakistan, India, Vietnam and Laos.
High Street retailers in Britain are equally involved in the exploitation of workers and have continued to do so even after an expose in a 2006 BBC report. In 2009, another report surfaced about worker exploitation in factories that supply goods to the likes of Tesco, John Lewis, Levis and Asda, among others. It would not be delusional to assume that the same conditions prevail to this day. Over two million Indonesian workers have gone on strike to protest exploitation and low wages. The Indonesian president Susilo Bambang called the strike unfortunate as it would "discourage foreign investors." There seems to be no value of human lives in his eyes.
Governmental indifference and corruption is only one enabling factor. It is the grave negligence by the Western media that allows the companies to continue with their exploitative business practices.
While the factories in Europe and North America comply with the local labor laws, many don't care about their outsourced operations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The global consciousness of customers seems to have taken a backseat. It is the discounts that matter the most to them. For importers of such goods, high margin of profits takes precedence over everything else. Apple does not give a damn to working conditions as long as the components are delivered on time and at minimal production costs. The same goes for other big-wigs.
Factory fires and the resulting carnage were common in Europe and North America a century ago. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire started a global movement of labor rights. It appears that the ideals of the dignity of labor have been all but forgotten. The loss of hundreds of lives in Pakistan and the pathetic working conditions of millions of other workers should be part of the contemporary discourse. While slavery has been abolished for centuries, its modern incarnation has taken roots. The irony is that the descendants of the same people who abolished slavery are perpetuating its modern form. Even more discouraging is the fact that there is no global movement fighting to end this scourge.