Over 700 Bangladeshis have tragically died in the collapse of a building housing several garment factories. It appears that the owners of the Rana Plaza factory building had illegally added three floors to the structure and installed generators and machines that caused the vibrations that led to its collapse. While this is the highest death toll in a single garment factory, the death of workers in this region is not uncommon, as hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers, women and men, have been badly burnt, suffocated or crushed to death.
In a country responsible for around $18 billion in clothing exports each year, there are more than “3.5 million Bangladeshi workers — 80 percent of them women — who toil in clothing factories.” While the minimum wage is the equivalent of only $37 a month, this is much better than what farmers and maids in this region are making. Thus, many are forced to choose between starvation wages and working in factories that are little more than death traps.
We Americans have seen this before. On March 25, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York caused the deaths of 146 workers, mostly Jewish immigrant female teenagers. The employees, especially those on the ninth floor faced terrifying, shameful safety conditions like a locked door, a rickety back fire escape (which collapsed), and the choice of leaping to their deaths or burning to death inside the factory. At one of the memorial services, labor leader Rose Schneiderman compared the workers’ conditions to a torture chamber of the Inquisition:
…the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch fire…
…. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred!
Incredibly, in 1911 the Triangle factory owners were acquitted of wrongdoing and made a $60,000 profit from their insurance payout in contrast to the meager amount they paid to the victims’ families. However, the public outcry eventually led to legislation that achieved vast improvements in workers’ conditions and factory safety. Today, the owners of the Bangladesh factory may face the death penalty for what they have done. We shall see whether this tragedy leads to improvements in conditions for the millions of garment workers in Bangladesh and other nations.
A commitment to safety can have dramatic results. The American workplace has improved tremendously since the late 19th and early 20th century, when thousands were maimed and killed on the railroads and up to 2,000 miners died every year. Since 1970, the federal government (through OSHA) has helped bring the number of worker fatalities and injury rate down by about two-thirds. Nevertheless, in 2011 more than 4,600 Americans died in accidents in the workplace, and about 4% of workers still sustain an injury or contract an illness while on the job.
Some companies have pledged to offer some compensation to families who have lost loved ones, and others that do business in Bangladesh have begun to talk about how to improve factory safety. But even with this laudable increase in expressed concern over this issue, there has not been enough action. As western companies are now buying more and more goods produced by Bangladeshi factories, we consumers must be more proactive in urging better conditions. Major U.S. clothes outlets (Gap, H&M, Walmart, etc.) buy their garments from Bangladesh, and we must urge them to demand better health and safety conditions for workers. We must take our national experience and act to avoid future disasters around the world.
We cannot imagine that our religious lives are separate from our consumer lives. Many today think that religion can be relegated to occasional prayer experiences or at most to local acts of good will. Alasdair MacIntyre described this phenomenon more elaborately:
Any contemporary attempt to envisage a human life as a whole, as a unity … encounters two different obstacles . . . . The social obstacles derive from the way in which modernity partitions each human life into a variety of segments, each with its own norms and modes of behavior. So work is divided from leisure, private life from public, the corporate from the personal… The philosophical obstacles derive from . . . the tendency to think atomistically about human action and to analyze complex actions and transactions in terms of simple components…[as well as the tendency to make a] sharp separation … between the individual and the roles that he or she plays.” (After Virtue, 204).
We know from rabbinic sources, for example, that the consumer is held accountable for wrongs done by the producer. If there were no buyer there would be no producer and thus no wrong done (Kiddushin 56b). Today we all wear clothing made in developing countries by workers under very trying and often less than humane circumstances. Each day as we make the morning blessings of “malbish arumim” and “ozer Yisrael bi’gvura” when we are getting dressed (Brachot 60b), we should consider how we can improve conditions for global workers producing our clothing. Just as a century ago we mourned “our own” who perished and acted to prevent future tragedies, so today we should act to prevent these disasters throughout the world. Let’s take last week’s events in Bangladesh as a teachable moment and not allow for the world to forget this tragedy before essential safety measures are put in place.