Walmart, 112 Dead Bangaldeshis, And You

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(My friends at the Fantasy Kingdom amusement park located near the site of the factory that burned on Sunday in Ashulia, Bangladesh, killing 112 workers.)

They stood at the windows of the building, 100-feet above the ground, skin boiling. Fire behind and nothing ahead.

There was no choice.

Was it more courageous to stay and burn or to jump? It takes about two-and-a-half seconds for a person to fall 100 feet. That’s two-and-a-half seconds of air cooling enflamed skin, two-and-a-half-seconds of relief before the end.

One of the advantages — and there are few — of jumping was that your family could identify your body. Eight workers jumped. Workers on the ground thought they were bails of clothing being thrown out the windows, as if that made sense, as if clothes need saving, as if they are worth more than lives.

This isn’t the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 that outraged the American public and helped propel labor rights forward in the United States. This isn’t then. This is now. This is 100 years after that fire. These aren’t Americans. These are Bangladeshis making products for Americans.

Twenty-nine Bangladeshi garment workers burned alive, were asphyxiated by smoke, or jumped to their deaths during the garment factory fire in Ashulia, Bangladesh, on December 14th, 2010. I wrote about the tragedy in my book Where Am I Wearing?

I visited Ashulia in 2007, and I took 19 kids and an old farmer to the Fantasy Kingdom amusement park there for the price of one ticket to Disney World ($67). Most garment workers could never afford the $3 admission on their own. I rode a roller coaster with three young garment workers, Russell, Zumon, and Habir. Habir was 18 and a five year veteran of a local garment factory. Russell went to school for six years and spoke a little English. All three were doing their darndest to grow mustaches and had a blast on the roller coaster. The day was one of the most memorable of my life.

When I learned of the 2010 factory fire, I was horrified. Were they in the fire? Did they jump?

I hoped that I would never have to ask the question again, but on Sunday it happened once more. Just like Triangle in 1911, just like 2010 — exits were locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work, and workers lost their lives in the fire or jumped to their deaths.

Many of us will wag our fingers at the brands the factory was filling orders for, including Walmart’s Faded Glory line, Sean Comb’s Enyce, and Dickies. We’ll criticize the companies for chasing lower wages (the minimum wage in Bangladesh is now $37; it was $24 when I was there in 2007). But they are just giving us what we want: cheaper prices.

The timing of the event is striking, since Friday was Black Friday, a day in which leftover-fueled Americans chased bottom dollar deals. Sales were up! This is good! A record Black Friday!

The Sunday of the fire was even blacker in Bangladesh.

I have an online friend who works for Walmart. I emailed him before Black Friday asking him what he thought of the Walmart workers threatening to strike in the United States.

Here’s what he told me:

I don’t like working 12 hours so people can trample each other to buy $4 bath towels for $1.88 or a $60 DVD player for $25.

But here’s the thing: I don’t like everything about the job, but I knew the nature of this beast when I applied for the job. And in the present economy, I feel blessed to have a job. There are changes that ought to be made. Others that need to be made, but you won’t find me on a picket line. I need a job too badly to complain.

His statement sounds an awfully lot like how we justify workers in Bangladesh earning a monthly income of $37 and having to spend almost half of that income just to feed their families rice: they need the opportunity.

In the name of lack of opportunity and poverty, we are exploiting American workers and Bangladeshi workers.

How long will we justify injustice?

We are paying a high cost for chasing low prices. As many as 80 percent of Walmart employees at some stores are on food stamps. In total Walmart employees receive $2.66 billion in government subsidies. Since 2006, 700 Bangladeshis have died in garment fires. When we demand everyday low prices, we get everyday low wages and bad working conditions. We are saving money, but are we living better?

Walmart doesn’t like unions; that’s not a secret, but the Bangladeshi business community really doesn’t like unions. Labor leaders have been killed. Worker protests for higher wages in the face of rising food prices have met violent opposition.

Here’s the thing though: If Walmart and other companies that source from countries like Bangladesh don’t want their charred labels showing up on the scenes of tragic factory fires, they need to support unions.

No amount of audits and unannounced audits or reports will improve working conditions more than an empowered workforce. Walmart has forever altered retail. Imagine what they could do for Bangladesh, for global poverty, and for American poverty if they stood with workers? Imagine if we, the American consumers, fought for justice as much as we fought for the last “doorbuster” flatscreen?

Were my friends Russell, Zumon, and Habir among the ashes? Did they jump? I’ll never know. But as long as we continue to chase lower prices at all costs, these types of tragedies will continue to happen, and I’ll have to ask these same questions again.

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What can you do?

Learn how to be a more engaged consumer

See how transparent your favorite brand’s supply chain is by checking out Free2Work’s report (spoiler alert: Walmart gets a D!) The Story Behind the Barcode

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UPDATE:

- The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights has a first hand accounts of the fire from workers at the factory. Exits weren’t merely locked to begin with, but locked in front of the workers who were told to go back to work after smelling smoke and trying to escape. The local paper said “[The Tazreen factory] did not look like a workplace –rather, set up for confinement.” All of the The workers interviewed believe the number of those killed to be more like 200, not 112.

- Walmart has distanced themselves, saying that the factory was no longer approved as a supplier as of 2011. It is WAY common for larger factories to subcontract their work to other factories. This is a common practice that I know goes on and that Walmart knows goes on. If the practice didn’t take place, then Walmart would probably have to pay higher prices for their clothes. It’s just business in Bangladesh. I would love to see Walmart step up and take some responsibility for not having a handle on their supply chain. GAP stepped up in 2010, and now it’s Walmarts turn, along with the other companies.

- Overall, it’s in a company’s best interest to not have a firm grasp of their supply chain so they can plead ignorance. From a Reuters:

“I won’t believe Walmart entirely if they say they did not know of this at all. That is because even if I am subcontracted for a Walmart deal, those subcontracted factories still need to be certified by Walmart,” Annisul Huq, former president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Reuters following a meeting of association members.

“You can skirt rules for one or two odd times if it is for a very small quantity, but no decent quantity of work can be done without the client’s knowledge and permission,” he said.

- As the Bangladeshi industry tries to find someone to blame, three supervisors at the factory may face arson charges. Video shows them trying to start a fire in another factory. (Not sure what setting fire in another factory has to do with the Tazreen factory.) Even if cameras caught some dude lighting the place up with a flamethrower, that is no excuse for workers being locked into a burning building.

 
3 comments
Gary Hyslop says:

It’s a sad and tragic story, Kelsey. It’s scary to wonder how long before something similar happens in North America. Again.

Jim Barnes says:

I used to work at Walmart and am thankful they gave me a job and helped me when there were few jobs available. I hate to see Walmart taking the blame for low wages and giving Americans low prices when they are in business to enrich the stockholder and not the employees. That is just the American way of business.

Kelsey says:

“…when they are in business to enrich the stockholder and not the employees. That is just the American way of business.”

Jim, I think we have to question how the short term pursuit of quarterly profits impacts our world. I’m not just blaming Walmart. I blame each of us. Many of us pursue financial growth at the cost of quality of life. I’m all for the pursuit of profit, but there are good ways to do it and there are not good ways. Anyway that involves fellow human beings working in a factory like this, is not a good one.

Let your voice be heard!