Bargains that aren’t cheap

It’s the kind of industrial disaster that the United States has largely relegated to the annals of history, but for the workers of Bangladesh, the terror is present and common. As has been widely reported, a eight-story garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, recently collapsed, taking with it more than 1,100 souls. Another 2,400 had to be rescued. A hundred are still missing; and two hundred more bodies have yet to be identified.

We can find an American parallel in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Of the 500 people who worked in that 10-story building, 146 died in the tragedy.

The collapse in Savar was far more deadly, but a mere accounting of bodies fails to adequately circumscribe the full contours of the event. While we have fire in one instance and shoddy construction in the other, direct cause is of less concern than the more fundamental cause: profit.

For all the gnashing of teeth and hands wrung about big government, an expansive and universal system of workplace safety, worker protection laws, wage and hour standards (and their incumbent bureaucracies) is exactly why we don’t have more industrial cataclysms like Triangle and Savar.

There’s hardly a manufacturing operation in the United States where safety shoes, hearing protectors, safety glasses, fire extinguishers, emergency exit routes and the like aren’t ubiquitous. Nor should there be.

No factory owner wants the Occupational Health and Safety Administration breathing down their necks, but even fewer workers want a falling factory to crush their necks. Those are uniquely American problems.

The folks in Savar and their kin all over the less-developed world don’t have the luxury of our protections or the bargaining power of our unions. This second dimension, organized labor, really gets to the heart of things.

The minimum wage for the Savar workers is roughly $38 per month. Those wages subsidize our relative affluence. They make possible an eight-dollar bundle of 10 T-shirts. They make possible all the “affordable” clothes that blanket our malls and big box stores.

No one wants to acknowledge that our bargains are only possible through another person’s abuse, but that is the reality of it.

Places like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Moldova and Vietnam have largely illiterate, unskilled, deeply impoverished populations. The school systems, utilities, health care and other niceties of American life are often absent. In short, people in those places work within the options they have —- and the options are often grim.

While industry and government are conjoined in an ugly and unethical mess in the United States, we still have a free press and the right to whistle-blow. Most of these less-developed nations have an intermingling of interests that is far more unseemly. Moreover, the idea of a free and open press is a laughable absurdity.

All this then suggest we might have unmet and unrecognized ethical obligations to those nameless wage slaves half a world away. Wouldn’t you pay an extra dollar or two for those T-shirts if it meant nobody had to be crushed by an unsafe building or live in unsanitary ramshackle huts between 16-hour shifts? Like it or not, our buying choices have consequences. They determine who eats and who doesn’t. In this case, they even determined who lived and who died.

None of us needs that much of a bargain.