Monday, December 03, 2012

Out of sight…

Triangle Shirtwaist is – I was going to write “alive and well”, but neither word quite works here – still out there in different manifestations. It’s just that it’s no longer in NYC. It’s in Bangladesh, and a few weeks ago over 100 factory workers lost their lives there in a terrible fire. So that we could buy cheap t-shirts, polos, and fleeces at Wal-Mart.

I am by no means about to argue that we should restore our garment industry to the Pajama Game era. Thanks to Adam Smith I get that jobs are going to flow to places where they can get done the cheapest. The net-net is mixed-mixed.  The standard of living will rise (however marginally for most workers) in the cheap labor nations; American workers – especially those unwilling or unable to acquire new and more advanced skills – will see their jobs disappear and their wage-earning capacity diminished; and whoever’s still got the money to pay for them will be able to buy goods for less.

My problem with the great labor arbitrage scheme is two-fold.

One, the U.S. has done a woeful job in preparing our workers for (and protecting them on the downside from) the results of globalization.  We have a sporadic, ad hoc, piecemeal approach to retraining workers who’ve lost their jobs. (Are we afraid that we’ll become a Planned Economy, a Soviet-style world where shoe factories manufacture left shoes only, and where the tractor plant can’t figure out why square wheels don’t move very well?) Sure, some of the burden should fall on the workers – they’re the ones who directly benefit, so they should be clamoring for and clambering to retraining – but we don’t make it any easier for them in terms of providing support. Some states are, of course, better than other. (Guess which ones?) Unemployment insurance is more generous, programs more available, etc. But on the whole…

And certainly American businesses could do a better job with this.

No one thing was the final nail in the Romney campaign coffin, but if you saw the ad “Stage” you’ll recognize that it was one of the nails. (I don’t know if in this particular case, the jobs were off-shored or just disappeared, but you’ll get the point.)

Out of the blue one day, we were told to build a 30 foot stage. Gathered the guys, and we built that 30 foot stage, not knowing what it was for….Just days later, all three shifts were told to assemble in the warehouse… A group of people walked out on that stage and told us the plant is now closed and all of you are fired. I looked both ways. I looked at the crowd and ah, we all just lost our jobs. We don't have an income….Turns out that when we built that stage it was like building my own coffin, and it just made me sick. (Source: Daily Kos.)

Maybe this company thought they were retraining their workers for the construction industry…

Anyway, if our options are retraining workers (and investing in our infrastructure, while we’re at it) vs. letting the market play itself out and letting the U.S. turn into a binary economy in which most citizens live in Northern-clime favelas and the narrow band at the top live in gated communities (covered with geodesic domes because of the air quality), why does it seem that we’re opting for the latter? (Admittedly an extreme portrayal, but I look at it as a counter-balance to those who claim that we’re a few weeks away from turning into Greece II.)

Of course, in exchange, everyone in those favelas gets his or her own flat-screen TVs so they can watch Monday Night Football and Breaking Amish. (Who needs bread when they can have circus?)

My second problem with globalization is the blind eye we turn to working conditions in the countries where jobs get offshored to.

Oh, we can tell ourselves, it’s just growing pains. In terms of working conditions and worker safety, in terms of pollution, they’re where we were 100 years ago when Triangle burnt down. They’ll come around.

We can pressure our brands (think Nike) and our stores (think Wal-Mart) into not using slave labor and child labor, not wreaking environmental havoc, not allowing the goods they produce and sell to be made under harrowing conditions.

Or we can just ignore it, not even bothering to give thanks for the workers who lose life and limb so that we can buy crap cheaper.

Tazreen Fashions, the Bangladesh garment factory where all those people were killed, is, not surprisingly, bread-crumb connected to Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart does worry – at least on paper – about being seen as insensitive to working conditions in the factories it sources from. They engage an “ethical sourcing” assessor that goes around and rates the places where Wal-Mart goods are made:

In its 2012 Global Responsibility report, Wal-Mart said that "fire safety continues to be a key focus for brands and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh." Wal-Mart said it ceased working with 49 factories in Bangladesh in 2011 because of fire safety issues, and was working with its supplier factories to phase out production from buildings deemed high risk.

Tazreen was given a "high risk" safety rating after a May 16, 2011, audit…Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner said online documents indicating an orange or "high risk" assessment after the May 2011 inspection and a yellow or "medium risk" report after an inspection in August 2011 appeared to pertain to the factory. The August 2011 letter said Wal-Mart would conduct another inspection within one year.

Gardner said it was not clear if that inspection had been conducted or whether the factory was still making products for Wal-Mart.

If a factory is rated "orange" three times in two years, Wal-Mart won't place any orders for one year. The May 2011 report was the first orange rating for the factory. (Source: USA Today.)

Three strikes seems might generous, doesn’t it? But, hey, there are low-cost polo shirts at stake.

Now Wal-Mart’s saying that Tazreen “

…was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Wal-Mart, but that a supplier subcontracted work to it ‘‘in direct violation of our policies.’’  (Source: AP on boston.com)

But, of course, the more subcontracting you do, the cleaner your hands are, and you’ve got all kinds of plausible deniability. (Shocked, I’m shocked…)

In much the same way, bottom-line chasers outsource all kinds of dirty work – like cleaning hotel rooms – to subcontractors who hire the poorest of the poor – often illegal – and pay them peanuts, give them terrible hours, etc.

Meanwhile, as the Tazreen fire details emerge, it sounds an awful lot like Triangle: locked exits, victims jumping to their deaths from high floors…

Just so we know that there’s a price we pay for having an infinite variety and amount of stuff to buy. We pay it in all sorts of ways, just not with our lives like those poor shirt-stitchers in Bangladesh.

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