Last weekend, 125 garment workers died in Bangladesh in a horrific factory fire that tore through the Tazreen Fashion factory. Accounts of the conditions at the factory, and in the fire, should conjure up a certain amount of deja vu for anyone familiar with the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which occurred over 100 years ago; the fire started in late evening, and moved quickly through a building with inadequate safety controls. Workers struggled to leave, finding locked doors and no emergency exits, which left them trapped inside the factory to burn to death. Meanwhile, fire crews struggled to get to the site, with limited access making it difficult to respond promptly.
That this fire was preventable is obvious. It had been flagged as ‘orange’ for unsafe conditions by Walmart, one of its customers, in 2011, for example. Yet, a variety of companies continued relying on the services offered by Tazreen Fashion because it offered something immensely appealing to companies in the West: Cheap, essentially disposable labor.
Up to 80% of the annual exports in Bangladesh come from clothing. The country has become a key site for garment manufacturing, with a massive growth in textiles and related trades to furnish the never-ending need for supply from the West. What the West wants most of all is cheap textiles, of course, which translates into tough deals driven with factory owners; those who cannot meet the rock-bottom prices demanded by Western companies are well aware that competitors will certainly undercut them in order to get the contract.
The result is a kind of race to the bottom when it comes to working conditions, wages, and workplace protections. Individual workers are less important than the productivity of a facility as a whole, which translates to rampant workplace abuses in a culture where money trumps all. The government has been slow to act, as the trade and foreign relations offered by the garment industry are tempting, and while Bangladeshi workers are organising and fighting for better working conditions, they have an uphill struggle.
The Tarzeen Fashion fire has horrified the West in its sheer size and scope, attracting attention that smaller factory fires and workplace disasters haven’t because of the number of people killed. And it’s highlighted problems with supplier and corporate accountability, something many Westerners struggling to make socially conscious buying decisions have a difficult time with, thanks to the layers of obscurity built into the manufacturing and sourcing of products. Many companies make it extremely difficult to tell where finished products and their components come from, who was involved in their construction, and what kinds of working conditions prevailed.
Some are even deliberately misleading; Unionmade, for example, features upscale men’s fashion that is not, in fact, made by union workers. The store’s logo is suspiciously close to that of the AFL-CIO, creating the illusion that the company supports unions and that its products offer an alternative to apparel sourced through exploitative means. It attempts to traffic on the association of quality and integrity with union made goods, and is surprisingly undisturbed when questioned about its business practices.
Documents emerging in the investigation of the Tarzeen fire illustrate that Walmart, among many others, was using the factory as a supplier. After wiffling and waffling for several days about whether it actually had ties to Tarzeen Fashion—despite photographs provided by garment workers clearly showing garments with Walmart brand labeling—the company blamed it on a ‘rogue supplier.’ It claimed that it had severed ties with Tarzeen Fashion and shifted responsibility to a supplier who subcontracted to the company, but didn’t provide information about the identity of that supplier, or the details of the subcontract.
Something certainly smells rotten in this scenario, and this isn’t the first time a mysterious ‘rogue supplier’ has been blamed when labour abuses are exposed. It’s astounding to see this argument used when firms like Walmart pride themselves on extremely tight supply chain and inventory control; it’s one reason why they can offer goods at such low prices. To suggest that they slacked on the job when it came to monitoring their suppliers and ensuring total control of the supply chain in the face of labour abuse allegations is highly suspect.
In this case, aggressive investigation in the wake of a large-scale fatal fire has resulted in a wealth of information about which companies used Tarzeen Fashion as a supplier. For consumers who want to avoid goods produced in such conditions, companies like Walmart, Dickies, Kebo Raw, Kik, and more can be struck off the purchase list. Many of these companies should already have been on the consumer blacklist; Walmart, for example, is notorious for unfair labour practices and has recently been the target of considerable organised worker action.
But this is only one factory, and only one set of brands. What’s concerning when it comes to consumer empowerment and advocacy is that these conditions prevail at factories across Bangladesh, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Mexico, and other nations where the US outsources garment and goods production to take advantage of extremely cheap labour and a minimal regulatory climate. Consumers looking to consciously avoid products made in conditions that involved abuse, exploitation, and suffering have an extremely limited list of ‘safe’ brands to choose from, and may have to forgo some products altogether.
For example, every step of the supply chain for electronics and their components, from mining to rare earth metals to horrific conditions at recycling facilities in China, is exploitative and abusive. Finding an ethical phone, laptop, or other advice is essentially a lost cause, and the same is increasingly holding true for garments and other consumer goods, putting consumers between a rock and a hard place. Things they may need, like shoes and clothing, may have to be purchased at the cost of the lives of the workers who produced them, because there are few to no alternatives available.
Especially in a climate where pay is so low and the cost of living is so high. Purchasing goods made in ethical conditions by workers who receive fair pay, protections, and benefits may be beyond the price point of many consumers, including those who strongly feel that worker abuse must be addressed. As such, they may be forced to buy cheap goods, thus perpetuating the cycle; as long as a demand exists for goods produced in harmful conditions, companies are going to continue squeezing the lowest possible price out of their suppliers.
And people are going to keep dying in factory fires, machine accidents, and other horrific working conditions.