In the wake of Black Friday, as consumers gave thanks for the mega deals, a tragedy in the developing world provided a stark reminder of the impacts of our consumption and drive for profit. On Saturday night, November 26, 2012, at least 112 workers were killed in a Bangladesh garment factory. Some broke windows, jumping from various levels of the eight-story building as they tried to escape the flames. Survivors lamented that ringing alarms were ignored by managers, exit doors were locked from the outside and non-working fire extinguishers were found to be mere props to impress inspectors. With many victims burned beyond recognition, a local fire inspector revealed, “Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower” (Hossain, 2012).
The factory is owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd., a subsidiary of the Tuba Group who’s client’s include Walmart, Carrefour and IKEA. The Tazreen factory, which opened in 2009 and employed about 1,700 people, made polo shirts, fleece jackets and T-shirts. The dangers of the factory were well known as it was given a “high risk” safety rating after a May 16, 2011, audit conducted by an “ethical sourcing” assessor for Walmart (Hossain, 2012).
Unfortunately these conditions and incidents are not usual. There have been several major factory fires over the years in Bangladesh and more than 200 people have died in garment-factory fires in the country since 2006 (Hossain, 2012). Poor and dangerous working conditions are, of course, not confined to the textile industry. At Foxconn, a major Chinese technology manufacture, workers making Apple and other tech products live on-site in huge, dreary dormitories adjacent to the factories, working round-the-clock shifts (Chibber, 2012). The deplorable living and working conditions were brought to light when 13 Chinese employees committed suicide at Foxconn or related plants in 2010. In the same year, an India-based factory was closed when 250 workers fell sick and another plant exploded.
Although not comparable to the tragedy in Bangladesh or the conditions at Foxconn, Walmart also faced criticism from it’s home-country as workers at over 1000 locations in the US held Black Friday protests against low wages, lack of benefits, unsafe working conditions, and unreasonable hours (Eidelson, 2012).
With a model to share profits amongst all employees, Sam Walton’s founding vision appears to have been lost somewhere along the climb to the top. The Walton family, one of the richest in the world, can’t seem spare the funds to provide basic safety measures for their employees abroad. While the Waltons are free to indulge in champagne and caviar, many American Walmart employees live below the federal poverty line, can’t afford to be part of the company health care program and are instead encouraged to apply for federal assistance programs like Medicaid, food stamps and subsidized housing. In fact, Walmart forces more employees to rely on taxpayer-funded health care than any other employer in the US (Leonard, 2010 p. 122).
Walmart’s indiscretions deserve a whole post of their own but if you’re interested in learning more check out the section devoted to the mega-giant in Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff (p.120-127) or the site Making Change at Walmart. To read more about the protest and demands check out www.ForRespect.org.
And this isn’t just about Walmart as these stories could very well be about any of our other beloved big box stores or mall favourites. It’s time to start asking what our ‘stuff’ really costs. Is another cheap polo shirt worth the lives of 112 workers in Bangladesh? Is it okay to shop at Walmart when workers can’t speak up for their basic rights or live without federal assistance? These are the hard questions we have to start asking. We are more than consumers. We are citizens living in a complex world where our actions directly influence the lives of others both locally and globally. We can start making changes by asking where our products came from and how they were made. We can start by being outraged at what we see happening in Bangladesh and elsewhere. We can support and listen to the workers who speak out and start demanding fair and equal treatment for all.