by Robert Koehler
"Everywhere near the building, the stench of death was overpowering. Men in surgical masks sprayed disinfectant in the air."
We move from tragedy to tragedy with hellish regularity.
"The scope of injuries," Jim Yardley writes in the New York Times, "was horrifying: fractured skulls, crushed rib cages, severed livers, ruptured spleens. One survivor lost both legs. . . . A teenage girl named Sania lost her right leg. Another teenager, Anna, lost her right hand."
This wasn't from a bomb in Boston. It was from a collapsed building outside Dhaka, Bangladesh -- another shocking sweatshop disaster, this one claiming the lives, according to the most recent count, of 385 people, with many more missing and at least 1,000 injured. Eight people, including the owner of the building, which housed five separate garment operations employing more than 3,000 people, were arrested. Workers, the Times reported, saw cracks in the walls of the building the day before it collapsed. They were told to go to work anyway.
Last November, when a fire swept through another Bangladesh garment factory, killing 112, I wrote: "It is a ruthless profit squeeze that has created workers' hell in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and that guarantees more fires and grotesque death tolls in coming months and years."
It is terrifyingly easy to be prescient about such matters, just as it's easy to predict more mass shootings in the United States. The system is broken. It's eating us alive. We do not value human life -- or, for that matter, life itself -- at the core of our social structure. But even the immensely powerful among us affect to value it after the fact, as rescuers pull bodies from the rubble and the survivors wail.
Thus two Western retailers, Britain's Primark and Canada's Loblaw, which contracted with local manufacturers in the collapsed building, have promised to compensate the families of workers killed in the disaster, according to Reuters. The heart weeps. How much is a dead Fourth Worlder worth? I can hardly wait to find out.
And while the name-brand retailers will do everything they can, PR-wise, to distance themselves from "the stench of death" in what is the worst industrial accident in Bangladesh history . . . nothing will change.
As labor scholar Beth English wrote recently on Huffington Post: "With demand high, accountability low, and profit margins thin, garment producers and retailers who source from them have little incentive to change. Citing costs and potential legal issues, major retailers rejected a plan in 2011 proposed by Bangladeshi and international unions that would have established an independent inspectorate to oversee all of Bangladesh's factories with the power to shutter facilities deemed unsafe."
Indeed, both Loblaw and Primark were among the retailers that did not sign the agreement, according to Nina Strochlic of The Daily Beast.
The building owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, who was arrested while apparently trying to flee to India, said the disaster wasn't his fault. He didn't force the factory owners to stay open. "It was them who forced me," he insisted, according to the Bangladesh online news site bdnews24.com, "saying they would face huge losses, and shipments would be canceled if the factories were closed for even one day."
"In an assembly line with so many middlemen, who's to blame?" Strochlic writes. Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry employs 3.2 million people, she notes. "But in the finger pointing after every disaster, little progress is made to fix the issue, as companies often blame corrupt government inspectors or factory owners, who blame companies for the pressures of a rigorous supply schedule."
And around and around and around it goes. No one has actual responsibility for worker safety. The best the victims and the public get are scapegoats. And so, when the building owner was brought to court this week, protesters chanted, "Hang him, hang him," NBC News reported. As though that would solve anything.
If only it were possible to enter the hearts of the scapegoats right now, the ones bearing criminal blame for the tragedy, and give witness with them to the principles of empathy and compassion that may be haunting them. What could we have done differently? What's more important than the margin of profit?
William Greider, writing this week in The Nation, say the U.S. government "could stop these industrial scandals rather quickly by legislating rules of trade that prohibit any imported goods that are produced in barbarous conditions."
Doing so, he says, "would begin to build a floor of decency under what the trading system allows. President Obama and U.S. multinationals are preparing a new free-trade agreement with Asian nations, but you can be sure there is nothing in it to protect the defenseless workers in Bangladesh and other poor countries. Indeed, U.S. trade agreements, starting with NAFTA, have concentrated on ensuring the rights of capital, not labor."
Maybe one day we'll figure it out. A society built on a foundation of decency protects everyone.
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