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by WALTER BRASCH

Imitating Sgt. Schultz of “Hogan’s Heroes,” Walmart executives claimed they knew nothing—NOTHING—about working conditions in a garment factory in Bangladesh where 112 workers died and more than 150 were injured in a fire.

Tazreen Fashions made Walmart’s Faded Glory brand clothes, as well as clothes for Sears and other dozens of other major retailers. Walmart officials told the news media they had previously terminated Tazreen as a direct supplier because of concerns about fire hazards, but that another supplier had subcontracted the work to Tazreen. Walmart refused to identify the supplier. In an official statement, Walmart said that the fire was “extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work with the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”

News reports indicate that survivors said fire extinguishers didn’t work, exit doors were locked, and there were no emergency exits. The AP reports that most fire extinguishers were not used, the workers having no knowledge of how to use them. According to the AP, most of the workers, about 70 percent of them women, were from the poorest sections of Bangladesh. More than 700 workers have died since 2005 from fires in the Bangladesh’s growing clothing manufacturing industry, according to the International Labor reporting Forum.

As with the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911, where 146 women, most of them recent Jewish and Italian immigrants working in sweatshop conditions, the workers at Tazreen were burned alive trying to get through the doors that never opened, died from smoke inhalation, or jumped to their deaths. Many of the dead in both fires were buried in unmarked graves, their bodies unrecognizable. The Triangle fire eventually led to improved safety conditions and the rise of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to protect workers from management callousness.

Walmart has a fierce anti-union policy for its own stores and employees, but doesn’t say much about working conditions in companies that supply merchandise, nor does it actively oppose unions in other companies overseas. There is no organized representation for most of the workers in Bangladesh sweatshops. Most workers earn $8.50 to $12.50 for a 48 hour work week, with mandatory overtime that can push them to as many as 80 hours. They receive two or three days off in a month. If Americans wonder why their clothes may not be as good as American-made clothes produced in union shops, the answer could be that the workers in Bangladesh may be mentally and physically fatigued, and that multinational corporations pressure suppliers to cut costs on material and labor. Bangladesh, now competing with China, shipped about $18 billion worth of merchandise to American and European corporations last year.

About 40 percent of all merchandise sold by Walmart is produced by contracts with manufacturers (most overseas), where low wages, excessive work hours, and poor working conditions are accepted practice. Walmart doesn’t make public the names of the companies which produce those “low prices” merchandise. However, it is known that it has contracts with several Bangladesh companies, as well as more than 20,000 Chinese manufacturers.

With revenue of more than $447 billion a year and about a 25 percent profit, Walmart is the largest public company in income in the world. But with its “low prices” slogan comes significant risk.

Walmart and other corporations have pushed American suppliers to outsource their own merchandise to overseas suppliers. More than 3.3 million American jobs will have been outsourced by 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. However, Goldman Sachs projects that as many as seven million jobs will have been lost by 2014. Most are in clothing and computer/electronics manufacturing, and in service centers where American customers call “help” lines and often get a heavily-accented representative who says his name is “Sam.” What most politicians, business people, and the public don’t understand is there is a direct correlation between the number of jobs outsourced and high unemployment in the U.S.

Walmart, which originally established a “Buy American” slogan before strutting its “lower prices” philosophy, now claims that over half its merchandise is made in America. This may or may not be accurate—Walmart doesn’t give specifics. But, if accurate, most of that is from its expanded grocery stores. Clothing, electronics, household goods, and thousands of other products are still made overseas—usually in conditions that are, at best, sweatshops; at worst, death traps. Every Congressional bill to ban the import of products produced in sweatshop conditions has been smothered in the committee process.

It’s possible that Walmart executives and upper management of the 2.2 million employee corporation that has eyes in almost every spot of the world did not know about working conditions in Tazreen—or any of the other sweatshops in Asia. It’s also possible they did know, but did a PR shuffle to explain their indifference. It really doesn’t matter.  

The sweatshops allow the corporations to sell the cheap merchandise that results in higher return on investment for American corporations that rely upon American consumers who want cheap merchandise, and don’t seem to care where it comes from or how it’s produced.

But, even those Americans who do care, and would pay higher prices for merchandise produced by workers in unionized American manufacturing plants, usually don’t have a choice. It’s hard to find “Made in America” labels on clothes and numerous other products sold by major retailers that have largely ignored sweatshop conditions in order to maximize profit.

[Walter Brasch’s latest book is Before the First Snow, which looks at working conditions. Assisting on this column was Rosemary R. Brasch]

Originally posted to brasch on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 03:44 AM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions, Anti-Capitalist Chat, Invisible People, and Rebel Songwriters.

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Comment Preferences

  •  My sig line is Walmart's business model. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    buckstop, Yasuragi, JayRaye

    In Roviet Union, money spends YOU!

    by Troubadour on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 04:11:56 AM PST

  •  Thanks for this well written but sad report. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Yasuragi, NY brit expat, JayRaye

    You illustrate well many of the issues of free trade vs. fair trade.

    In  a global free market, with low transportation cost, and no trade barriers manufacturers will natural migrate towards the lowest wage areas seeking a long-term equilibrium of global wages.  This is  going to be still much, much lower for Americans, while eventually wages should rise in China and other lower wages once the supply of skilled or trainable becomes a constraint. (Still a long way to go.)

    This dynamic alone will already be devastating for historical expectations for U.S. standards of living.

    But, the theory of free trade and free market capitalism suggests once freed up from basic manufacturing labor, unemployed Americans will be motivated to innovate and find some better way to contribute where we have competitive advantage. We need a more serious national discussion about the extent to which this theory may be true or in our collective common good.

    However, the situation of unsafe working conditions illustrates that we do not have a level playing field.  The theory of "fair trade" adds considerations of worker health and safety, as well as adherence to environmental standards we choose to enforce here in the U.S.  If manufacturers can avoid these "extra costs" by merely moving to countries that do not enforce such standards we create economic forces that will force a "drift to lowest standards," which might be called "lowest common denominator" health and environmental standards.

    Unless we face the reality that if we want to live in an economy where we have minimum standards for worker safety, child labor, and environmental standards we much have trade sanctions or tariffs on countries that do not enforce these so their these "external" costs are accurately reflected in the prices of product produced in these substandard countries.

    Sadly, our political system, nation, and world may not have sufficient collective intelligence to for us to negotiate global free trade treaties that take this into account.  

    If so, the tragic result will be that substandard working conditions and lack of environmental controls will predominate by virtue of free markets seeking the absolute minimum production cost.

    Thanks again for calling this serious situation to our attention.

    The means is the ends in the process of becoming. - Mahatma Gandhi

    by HoundDog on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 04:12:06 AM PST

  •  sweatshops (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Yasuragi, JayRaye

    What's the basis for the statement that Wal-Mart products are "usually" made in sweatshops?  Is there data on that?

    History will be kind to us because we will write it.

    by Sky Net on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 04:22:13 AM PST

    •  Agreed: sources and links are (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JayRaye, Sky Net

      always helpful.

      Yesterday I held off reccing a good diary because there were no links.  A conversation with the diarist convinced me I was wrong.  I've rec'd this, but isn't it a requirement (or at least a powerful "suggestion") that kos diaries contain at least some links to source material?

      "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." -- Willie Stargell

      by Yasuragi on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 06:35:15 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  PBS (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Yasuragi

        http://www.pbs.org/...

        [pdf] Washington Post
        http://www.momandpopnyc.com/...

        [pdf] NELP
        Chain of Greed
        http://www.momandpopnyc.com/...

        workplacefairness.org
        http://www.workplacefairness.org/...

        There are many many more.

        WE NEVER FORGET Our Labor Martyrs: a project to honor the men, women and children who lost their lives in Freedom's Cause. For Nov: Lives lost trying to earn a living.

        by JayRaye on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 08:06:29 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  :) (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          JayRaye

          Thanks, JayeRay.

          "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." -- Willie Stargell

          by Yasuragi on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 11:56:43 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Sweatshops (0+ / 0-)

          I'm sure there are some sweatshops in Wal-Mart's supply chain, but there's nothing in those links that indicates it's "usually" the case and not just the exception.  If someone's going to make that claim they have to substantiate it with data, not anecdotes.

          History will be kind to us because we will write it.

          by Sky Net on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 01:20:54 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  sweatshop def: (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            slatsg

            a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions

            In the over 25 years that I have studied these things, including personally knowing people who visited some of the companies in Guatemala and Honduras, I've never heard of one single factory in the 3rd world where the hours of labor were 8 hours, & wages and working conditions good. If you hear of one, let us know.

            My aunt used to sew for a living, and she had a fair wages and 8 hour day. She also had a Union, ILGWU.

            Doesn't sound like you took the time to read the links. You seem very invested in Walmart for some reason.

            WE NEVER FORGET Our Labor Martyrs: a project to honor the men, women and children who lost their lives in Freedom's Cause. For Nov: Lives lost trying to earn a living.

            by JayRaye on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 02:46:31 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I read the links (0+ / 0-)

              But there wasn't any data about what percentage of overseas factories didn't meet some particular criteria.  I don't trust anecdotes as an analytical tool, and sweatshops is a vague and undefined term.

              I live overseas myself and have been to any number of apparel and electronics factories in a multitude of countries.  Some look pretty good, some are just OK, but they all look pretty typical of what you'd expect there to be in the developing world.  And no, I don't work for Wal-Mart or any other company like that.

              Just because a company is in the developing world doesn't mean it's a "sweatshop".

              History will be kind to us because we will write it.

              by Sky Net on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 03:24:15 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Ralph Chaplin, 1910 (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NY brit expat

    They have laid our lives out for us
    To the utter end of time.
    Shall we stagger on beneath their heavy load?
    Shall we let them live forever
    In their gilded halls of crime,
    With our children doomed to toil beneath their goad?

    Commonwealth of Toil (starts at 1:00)

    Lyrics: http://www.folkarchive.de/...

    WE NEVER FORGET Our Labor Martyrs: a project to honor the men, women and children who lost their lives in Freedom's Cause. For Nov: Lives lost trying to earn a living.

    by JayRaye on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 08:19:46 AM PST

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