Monday, April 29, 2013

We don’t need no stinking regulation? Tell that to Rana Plaza and West, Texas.

As I write this, they’re still finding survivors in (and dragging bodies out of) the Rana Plaza building, in Dhaka Bangladesh, where thousands of desperately poor people stitched away. And stitched away so that those of us who live in the more economically advanced parts of the world can stuff our closets and drawers a lot fuller than we could if the people doing the stitching were working under safer conditions.

Wasn’t I just writing about this a couple of months ago?

Yep, that would be last December, when the topic was the late-November Tazreen Fashion fire.

Maybe this time the apparel companies who profit from having their manufacturing done under such horrific conditions will start getting serious about trying to do something about them. As the death toll mounts, my hope is that these companies – which, in the Rana Plaza round appear to include Children’s Place and Benetton – will stop hiding behind the ‘see nothing/hear nothing’ protective coating of working through layer upon layer of middlemen – the coating that gives them deniability, and, in turn, gives us consumers the ability to live in blithe denial.

Question: How often do I think about the conditions under which the clothing I wear is made?

Answer: Only when something like Rana Plaza happens.

Sure, it’s not easy for apparel companies working with countries like Bangladesh, rife with corruption and full of millions of people for whom making the $.25 an hour – half of what I made baby-sitting in 1964 – is worth the risk of death. And that risk is very real. In the past ten years, between fires and building collapses, more than a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh have been killed. The final tally at Rana may well end up doubling that number. (For more on the not-so-wonderful world of sweatshops, see the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights). As I wrote in my December post on Tazreen, I’m not arguing for a return to the days of Pajama Game. Hey, I worked in a boot factory, so I have no illusions about how swell these jobs are.

Industries will move to wherever they can operate most “cost effectively.” That’s going to mean lower wages. But do those wages have to be that low? I’m sure that $.25 an hour goes further in Dhaka than it does in Boston, but still… And does it also have to mean ghastly working conditions?  


At the site of a collapsed factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, rescue workers searched among the rubble as distraught family members of missing workers waited for word of their loved ones… 

Rana Plaza was evacuated on Tuesday after a crack appeared on an exterior wall, but factory managers coerced workers to return to their jobs the next day, workers said. Mr. Rana [the owner], who told workers on Tuesday that the building would stand "for another 100 years," according to workers, hasn't made any public comments since the collapse. Attempts to reach him weren't successful….

On Friday, limbs of victims protruded from the fallen masonry and volunteers sprayed scented air freshener around the site to obscure the stench of decomposed flesh.(Source: WSJ Online.)

The factories in Bangladesh could do with a bit more regulation, don’t you think? Maybe it’s time for us to look at our tags and encourage our brands to be a bit more forceful when working with the companies of origin. (Just checked, and I’m wearing clothing made in Cambodia, Tunisia, and Mexico, but I’ve no doubt got some Bangladesh in my closet somewhere.)

Meanwhile, back on the home front, where some parties seem to believe that our businesses are being stifled, just smothered by unnecessary regulation, we have the horrific fertilizer explosion in West, Texas. Which seems to be the result of a combination of lax regulatory enforcement:

Documents reviewed by The Huffington Post indicate that the last time regulators performed a full safety inspection of the facility was nearly 28 years ago. The entity with primary authority to ensure workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, last visited in 1985, according to OSHA records.

Since then, regulators from other agencies have been inside the plant, but they looked only at certain aspects of plant operations, such as whether the facility was abiding by labeling rules when packaging its fertilizer for sale. (Source: Huffington Post.)

And insouciant, feckless, A-OK-ism on the part of the company:

In June 2011 -- less than two years before the explosion -- the private company that owns the plant, the West Fertilizer Co., filed an emergency response plan with the Environmental Protection Agency stating that there was "no" risk of fire or explosion at the facility. The worst scenario that plant officials acknowledged was the possible release of a small amount of ammonia gas into the atmosphere. (Source: Huff-Po again.)

Not that it matters all that much to the families of those who were killed, or to those who had their homes and livelihoods destroyed, but it will be interesting to see whether, on the regulatory end of things, this was caused by incompetence, or a lack of funding because, after all, we don’t need no stinking regulations.

Then there’s this:

The fertilizer plant that blew up in Texas last week warned state and local officials but not federal agencies that it had 270 tons of highly volatile ammonium nitrate on site, according to regulatory records. (Source: CNN.)

It’s certainly interesting to note, however, that the fertilizer plant didn’t mind telling the state and locals that they had such a volatile brew on site, but neglected to let the feds know…

I’m sure that every last one of us could, within five minutes, come up with some totally BS, nonsense regulation. But we can’t let that translate into equating regulation with evil.

All we need is Rana Plaza and West, Texas, to remind us of that.

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