It isn't as though no one could see this coming. Over 1,800 garment workers have been killed in fires and building collapses in Bangladesh since 2005. Workers have long been demanding better working conditions and higher wages, which are among the lowest in the world. After massive protests in 2010 garment workers received an 80 percent raise, which sounds promising until one realizes that it is now up to 3,000 takas — $38US — a month. Still, working conditions remained abysmal in Bangladesh's garment industry, the world's third largest after China and Italy.
To crush ongoing street protests by thousands of garment workers, in 2010 the Bangladeshi government unleashed a newly-created "Industrial Police force." Trade union activists have also faced harsh crackdowns including multiple arrests and the mysterious death last year of one union organizer, Aminul Islam, whose body was found a day after he disappeared from his home. Technically, Bangladesh's 2006 Labor Act allows garment workers to unionize with permission from their employers. Unsurprisingly, no garment factory owner allowed a union, ever.
There is good news in the wake of this catastrophe: the government recently announced that garment workers can now form unions freely. But activist leaders are hardly sanguine that legalization alone will have any beneficial effect:
"The issue is not really about making a new law or amending the old one," said Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, a group campaigning for garment workers' rights. "In the past whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beatings and harassment," she said. "The owners did not hesitate to fire such workers."
Instead of crushing worker protests, perhaps Bangladesh's "Industrial Police force" could be repurposed to enforce worker rights? Probably not. When one considers the sheer amount of death, destruction and despair required to pressure the Bangladeshi government into merely legalizing unions, it seems highly unlikely. The State acts as a de facto instrument of wealthy business owners in Bangladesh, and elsewhere (*ahem*). Well, at least until the body count rises and the riots get too large: then the working class can look forward to a few scraps tossed their way, even if the action is merely symbolic. It seems Bangladesh's oligarchs are fortunate that the country's major export is clothing and not, say, pitchforks. Or automatic weapons.
Or consider the desperate situation in Haiti. Absent a strong tradition of labor rights or any meaningful way to enforce them — truly, a libertarian paradise! — impoverished factory workers are sexually exploited in the worst ways imaginable, with total impunity.
Thankfully, such horrors could never happen in the U.S. — I mean happen again, of course. More than 100 years have passed since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, where 146 garment workers died. Many were burned alive, others died jumping out of windows to escape the flames, and a handful of others were crushed when a fire escape collapsed. Workers trapped inside found fire hoses with no water, and exits that were locked or blocked. There were no sprinklers, and there had never been a fire drill. The building itself stands to this day: ironically, it was fireproof.
After the tragedy, U.S. labor groups made significant gains for workers and workplace safety. (SIEU has a good interactive graphic here.) For a while, workers saw unprecedented wage growth and the emergence of a flourishing middle class. But every single gain has remained under relentless attack by America's Owners and their servants in Congress and state houses across the nation. Indeed, for some workers in the U.S. today, it is almost as if nothing was ever gained at all.
I learned recently of worker exploitation in a Third World country I had never heard of before: "Florida." It turns out that tomato pickers there earn sub-poverty wages, and have not received a significant raise in over 30 years. Worse, many workers are literally enslaved — and no, that is not hyperbole. The Justice Department has prosecuted seven cases of slavery in the Florida agricultural industry and freed more than 1,000 men and women since 1997, but the abuse continues. Growers have resorted to abductions, pistol whippings, confinement at gunpoint, debt bondage and starvation wages to control desperately poor workers.
About a year ago I learned of the horrendous working and living conditions in yet another Third World country called Louisiana:
My name is Ana Rosa Diaz. I’m 40 years old and I have four children. I came to the United States on an H-2B guestworker visa from my home in Tamaulipas, Mexico. I work in a small town in Louisiana with other guestworkers, peeling crawfish for a company called C.J.’s Seafood, which sells 85% of its products to Walmart.
Our boss forces us to work [VIDEO] up to 24 hours at a time with no overtime pay. No matter how fast we work, they scream and curse at us to make us work faster. Our supervisor threatens to beat us with a shovel to stop us from taking breaks.
We live in trailers across from the boss’s house, and we’re under surveillance all the time. The supervisors come into our trailers without warning, and they threaten to fire us if we leave after 9 p.m.
The supervisor also locked us in the plant so we couldn’t take breaks. One worker called 911. After that the boss rounded us up at 2:30 a.m., closed the door to keep the American employees out, and threatened our families.
He said, “As a friend I can be very good, but you don’t want to know me as an enemy. I have contacts with good people and bad people, and I know where all your families live. I can find you no matter where you hide.” We were terrified.
We want to work. We need to support our families. But we also want to be treated like human beings.
There is a reason why corporations bankroll politicians who will work to undermine unions and regulation at every turn: it is in their interest to see the U.S. workforce go back to living and working exactly the way Ms. Diaz does. It can only help the all-important bottom line. In places without strong labor unions, meaningful regulations or enforced worker protections the picture is always this ugly, or worse. For the vast majority of the world's workers this is just life in the glorious “free market,” wherever and whenever employers can get away with it. Tempting as it may be to believe the bad old days are all in the past, this is the present for Ms. Diaz, for agricultural workers in Florida and for many others in the Land of the Free. It takes unrelenting vigilance and sustained pressure by labor activists and empowered regulators to protect worker rights, especially where the State is a de facto instrument of wealthy business interests. Well, at least until the body count rises and the riots get too large.
One might also be tempted to blame the Republican Party for this state of affairs: after all, its track record on union-busting, massive tax breaks for wealthy corporations, deregulation, and blocking minimum wage increases speaks for itself. But at least Republicans are explicit about serving the interests of America's Owners. It's the treacherous New Democrats — economic conservatives serving exactly the same masters while feigning otherwise — who present the serious threat to our economic well-being. Those who bought into Barack Obama's rhetoric in 2008 still refuse to see that they were wrong about him on matters as far ranging as unions, corporate servitude, U.S. imperialism, civil rights, transparency, warrantless wiretapping, even Iraq. Under the Bush-Cheney regime the same policies merited scathing condemnation from Democrats. Now? *crickets.* Welcome to bipartisan consensus.
No one should want to see the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the tragedy in Bangladesh repeated, anywhere. To economic conservatives who remain unmoved, I will just say this: it is well worth considering the implications of your position, for all of us.