Next time you buy a T-shirt at Disney World or Sears or Walmart, don’t smell it too closely. You might catch a scent of charred flesh.
The Associated Press reported recently that in the burned-out remains of the Tarzeen Fashions Ltd. factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a fire killed 112 workers, manufactured clothing and account books showed orders for several Western corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores, Sears and Disney.
An AP photo showed a sweatshirt lying on the floor of the factory bearing the cartoon image of Lightning McQueen, the hero of the Disney-owned Pixar movie “Cars.”
It is hardly a shock that garment-factory workers in Bangladesh and other Third World countries labor in unsafe conditions. In fact, more than 300 have died in fires in Bangladesh in the past six years, according to the AP.
These workers endure hardships, low wages and sometimes death so we can buy inexpensive clothing.
Western corporations who profit handsomely from this trade claim that they monitor conditions and don’t do business with factories that have unsafe conditions. Sears, Wal-Mart and Disney all said they had cut off contracts with Tarzeen Fashions because it violated safety standards and blamed subcontractors for placing orders with Tarzeen without their knowledge.
Perhaps, but it is hard to believe that someone at these corporations was not aware of where their apparel was being made.
We hear a lot these days that the free market is the answer to everything and that government regulation kills jobs. I once heard the uber-free-market economist Milton Friedman say in a lecture that during the era around the turn of the 20th century in America, when unregulated working conditions and abusive employer practices were rampant, American families raised their standard of living more than during any other period in our history.
That may be true, but they did so by working forced 12-hour days and sending their children to work in sweatshops and open-pit steel mills, where they routinely lost limbs. Lacking legal compulsion, corporate responsibility is rare.
Consider a case similar to the Tarzeen factory. A garment factory on the upper floors of a building caught fire and 146 people died, either by jumping to their deaths or from smoke inhalation or burns. The victims were mostly young women, the youngest 14. Managers had locked the exit doors – to prevent theft, they said.
This incident, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, happened March 25, 1911 in New York City. It remains the fourth-worst industrial accident in U.S. history, and it resulted in stronger regulation of working conditions.
There is a moral calculation that does not figure into Friedman’s econometric measures, an offense to conscience that we cannot stand when it comes to fairness and justice. If government regulation kills jobs, the absence of it kills people, and we have correctly decided we will not allow that.
The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were put on trial for manslaughter. They were acquitted but lost a civil suit. Police in Bangladesh announced that they arrested three managers at the Tarzeen factory who had locked the doors, preventing the workers from escaping.
It’s possible they will be acquitted as well, but already there have been large-scale protests in Bangladesh about working conditions. Perhaps stricken consciences will override economic interests and there will be reforms in Bangladesh.
Disney, Sears and all Western corporations that deal in garments manufactured overseas could go a long way toward helping that happen, if they want to. If that means adding a buck to the cost of that Mickey Mouse T-shirt, well, at least it won’t be stained with blood.
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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