Why Are We Not Enraged By The Fire In A Sweatshop In Bangladesh?

 

Why is it when women jumped to their deaths to escape the deadly fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1913, we are even today able to be horrified at the management’s cold blooded view of workers as expendable? But why is it we are not as enraged when hundreds of women were killed in the April 2013 Rana Plaza Factory fire in Bangladesh?  Even when we know that the workers were making products for Disney and Walmart, why aren’t we horrified? Shouldn’t we be enraged that workers anywhere are killed because of lack of safety standards, regardless of which company they are working for, whether it is a multinational company or a local company? Once we put an American face on the sweatshop, one hopes that will generate some amount of questioning, such as why Walmart has not followed safety standards in Bangladesh, what companies are overlooking safety regulations, why they are exempt from local laws regarding worker safety, and so on. More importantly, when we see advertisements showing how most of us profit from shopping in Walmart because of their low prices, shouldn’t we be asking how we are implicated in Walmart’s ability to keep prices low? Who benefits? At whose expense are we enjoying bargains?  But, perhaps, we are so conditioned by the system of consumption, where the ideal customer is often confused with the ideal citizen, that we do not see the shadows of workers behind the aisles of clothing or behind the glass cases holding our electronic gadgets.

The worker has become as intangible to us as a theorem or a cosmic body. How can we see/feel/touch/hear/smell workers in the business of making our life livable?

Once the American consumer is able to SEE the connection between his/her “deals” and “specials” and the masses of brown, malnourished women working in unsafe factories making the goods that flood markets in the U.S., the consumer will become informed and this would be the beginning of addressing the rights of both the worker and the consumer. But this connection cannot be established if the consumer is not really given the full “news” about the conditions of workers. Just as we know so little about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we do not have complete knowledge about sweatshop atrocities. The news media has not shared with the American public images of sweatshop workers dying and injured in the Bangladesh factory fire. As Amy Goodman says in an interview about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if Americans were to see graphic pictures of war, they will urge their government toward other means of resolving conflict. Images of workers’ in unsafe conditions will have the necessary effect on consumers, which will then propel companies to act and governments to enforce laws protecting workers. It is a shame that the U.S. multinational companies can shelter under the very laws that are meant to protect workers.

Elizabeth Cline points out, “In 2009, the Ninth US Circuit of Appeals ruled that workers in foreign factories that supply Walmart can’t hold the company responsible for their workplace conditions, despite the retailer’s code of conduct that’s supposed to hold its contractors to decent labor standards. This lack of liability is enjoyed by every retailer that uses contracted factories, which they do not own. It’s this loophole, the one that legally distances clothing companies from the very people who actually make the clothing, that has consistently and historically wrought disaster and human tragedy. This chilling othering of the worker makes us lose our very humanity.

We can create a movement by posting images of atrocities as a way of mobilizing the public to stand up against a greedy capitalism that is eroding both worker rights and our rights as citizens. It is time to say, we are global citizens, not consumers. It is time to claim our humanity.

 

(Photo Credit: Trusted Clothes)

The priceless gift of infinite standards

Amy Goodman is upset at double standards, specifically two standards of detention.

Scott Roeder is in jail for having killed Dr. George Tiller. While in jail, Roeder has just about unlimited access to the press, to visits, to the internet, to phone calls. The conditions of his incarceration in and of themselves are not the problem. The problem is all the others held incommunicado. Fahad Hasmi, for example, or Andrew Stepanian: “Hashmi is a U.S. citizen who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and went to Brooklyn College. He went to graduate school in Britain and was arrested there in 2006 for allegedly allowing an acquaintance to stay with him for two weeks. That acquaintance, Junaid Babar, allegedly kept at Hashmi’s apartment a bag containing ponchos and socks, which Babar later delivered to an al-Qaida operative. Babar was arrested and agreed to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for leniency….Fahad Hashmi was extradited to New York, where he has been held in pre-trial detention for more than two years. His brother Faisal described the conditions: “He is kept in solitary confinement for two straight years, 23- to 24-hours lockdown. … Within his own cell, he’s restricted in the movements he’s allowed to do. He’s not allowed to talk out loud within his own cell….He has Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) … against him.” Hashmi cannot contact the media, and even his lawyers have to be extremely cautious when discussing his case, for fear of imprisonment themselves”

Animal rights and environment activists are treated to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s newest toy, “communications management units”, or CMUs. According to Stepanian, the CMU is “”a prison within the actual prison. … The unit doesn’t have normal telephone communication to your family … normal visits are denied … you have to make an appointment to make one phone call a week, and that needs to be done with the oversight of … a live monitor.” 70% Muslim prisoners, CMUs are commonly referred to as Little Guantanamo. Amy Goodman thinks this situation is wrong: “Nonviolent activists like Stepanian, and Muslims like Hashmi, secretly and dubiously charged, are held in draconian conditions, while Roeder trumpets from jail the extreme anti-abortion movement’s decades-long campaign of intimidation, vandalism, arson and murder.”

Surely, having two standards is better than having one. Surely that suggests wealth, just as having two cars or two houses. The U.S. has two standards not because it is racist or any other supposedly bad thing. It’s wealthy and can afford them. Everyone else is just jealous, that’s all.

Want to hear about three standards? There’s a standard for prisoners, a standard for women of color, and a standard for mothers: “Last November, Venita’s baby was getting ready to enter the world, but Venita couldn’t move. While she was going into contractions, her ankles were shackled, her hands cuffed, and her waist tied. For extra assurance, her hands were further restrained with a black box. Just following procedure, the officer said as he escorted her to the birthing room. The pain and joy of child birth may be the most intense experience a woman will ever have. For incarcerated pregnant women in New York, however, they’re prisoners first and mothers second”. Not quite. Prisoners first, women of color second, mothers third. America, a marketplace of standards.

Across the United States, juvenile justice programs, cultural programs, educational programs, caring programs, are being cut. Special transitional houses for girls, for example. Most of the girls are African American, Latina, and Native American. The programs work, the reforms work. And so they shall be cut. How many standards does that make. America, a shopping mall, a mega-mall, of standards.

Want more standards? How about prisoner and disabled? Howard Hyde, for example. “Terrified shrieks and the harsh crackle of electrical current filled a courtroom on Friday as surveillance video of the tasering of a paranoid schizophrenic was shown at an inquiry into his death. The video shows Howard Hyde regaining his feet, clad only in the shorts in which he was arrested. Momentarily at bay, facing three officers in the booking room of Halifax police headquarters, he throws himself over a waist-high counter and vanishes into a hallway. The audio recording continues and captures what sounds like another application of the taser. The Dartmouth man stopped breathing in that hallway and had to be revived. He died 30 hours later after a struggle with guards at a local jail.” Disabled prisoners generally have a hard time. If the disability is mental health … well, that’s a whole other standard. At least it’s Canada, and not the U.S. That’s a relief.

Maybe it’s not wealthy countries that can afford the extravagances of multiple, infinite and proliferating standards of detention. Maybe it’s countries with greater and growing wealth gaps, greater and growing chasms and higher and harder barricades between the wealthy and the poor. And each new standard? A gift, and especially a gift to women and girls of color across the land. You really can’t put a price on that now, can you?

(Photo Credit: Librado Romero / The New York Times)