Economic exploitation spills blood

The recent fertilizer plant explosion in Texas and the factory collapse in Bangladesh were not natural disasters, but the avoidable consequence of poor industrial management and a global economy in dangerous flux

By Deborah Orr  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Sat, May 04, 2013 - Page 9

Whether it is an explosion at a fertilizer factory in the US, or the collapse of a factory building in Bangladesh, industrial catastrophe tends to be reported almost as if it is a natural disaster.

An individual carrying out a mass shooting or planting a bomb — that is news, that is blameworthy, that is deserving of justice for the victims. However, when business is the culprit, finger-pointing is deemed less important. Which is odd, in a way.

Humanity may never quite be fully able to say which disturbed and angry people are truly dangerous, but good management of industrial risk is eminently achievable.

An explosion at West Fertilizer Co in Texas last month killed 14 people and injured many others. Just a terrible accident that could not have been foreseen?

Perhaps, but the factory had been fined by US regulators last year for its sloppy safety arrangements, eventually coughing up just US$5,250.

In 2006, the factory was investigated after an “odor complaint.”

It was found to have been using controlled materials without authorization. The filing of an application to use the dangerous substances legally instead of illegally resolved the issue.

In retrospect, these interventions by regulators seem pretty paltry, although the reasons for the accident has not yet been ascertained.

Nevertheless, the factory’s parent company, Adair Grain Inc, has been sued by insurance companies on behalf of a number of individuals, in a lawsuit that claims the company “was negligent in the operation of its facility, creating an unreasonably dangerous condition which led to the fire and explosion.”

The collapse of an eight-story clothing factory in Dhaka last week is a much greater disaster, with the death toll now more than 500. Estimates suggest that there may have been as many as 5,000 workers in the building.

Witnesses say they had been told to return to work after reporting that a crack had appeared in one of the walls. One cannot help wondering whether the building had simply never been built to withstand the weight of 5,000 people and their machinery.

Clearly, no heed had been paid by management to the deaths of 112 workers in a garment factory fire in a nearby suburb, Ashulia, in November last year. A day of mourning for the dead was declared in Dhaka, but a few months on, a bigger disaster with greater casualties has occurred. This time, a day of mourning was declared for the entire country.

It does not take a rocket scientist to work out what is going on in Bangladesh.

It is the second-largest exporter of clothing in the world after China. The secret of success in both countries is that cheap, skilled labor turns out clothes that are of excellent quality, yet retail at sums that are peanuts in the West.

Monthly pay in the Bangladesh garment industry can be as little as US$39 a month, while US$39 can buy two or three nice outfits on the high street in Britain. The high street retailer, Primark, has confirmed that one of its suppliers worked from the building, while Matalan says it had used companies in the building in the recent past.

Again, no surprise.

Pressure groups have been trying to name and shame Western suppliers into driving up health and safety standards among workers in the developing world for decades, with some success, but not as much as they would like to see.

There is a school of thought that believes the ongoing exploitation is all the fault of the fashion industry, but that is not quite true. If you asked fashion designers whether they would prefer consumers to purchase one or two carefully chosen pieces from high-end collections every season, or an armful of high-street ripoffs every month, they would counsel strongly for the former. It is a bit like saying celebrity chefs are the reason for fried-chicken shops.

High-street retailers offer a tawdry approximation of crafted, quality fashion-collecting, an experience of whiz-bang consumer gratification that is a little bit desperate, much like a meal from a greasy box that offers some comfort, but not much sustenance.

Constant treat-shopping is a Western hobby — addictive, but unsatisfactory. It fills time without demanding engagement or skill.

The horror of post-industrial society is that it deskills and makes passive the people who would once have been making the things that they are now buying in the shops instead and they can only afford to buy this stuff because people in other countries cannot afford to say “no” to making it under conditions now — rightly — considered unacceptable in Britain. People purchase these products because they are at the cheap price that became the nemesis of the former workshop of the world.

Much is made of the capacity of globalization to spread wealth. In fact, it is a fiendish process that rewards an exploitable population until it gets too big for its boots, then leaves it high and dry, with only the produce of the next group of victims to keep it afloat.

Given time, the people of Bangladesh will gain decent working conditions, just as the workers of industrial Britain did. Then, they too will be buying cheap clothes made in far-off factories in which they would not work themselves.

What is happening currently is a vast recalibration of human beings and their economic categories. General standards of living are still broadly predicated on the part of the world in which you live. However, globalization spreads relative poverty as well as relative wealth. Eventually, the world’s poor and the world’s rich will have everything in common with each other, and nothing in common with their neighbors and compatriots.

You see it here already, not only in the condemnation of “welfare dependency,” but in the demand of business for immigration, however big a headache this makes for politicians. You see it in China’s consumer class, who are flocking to the Western “affordable fashion” stores, such as Zara and H&M, that are blooming in Asia like daisies in a park. You see it in the way that two factories, in two parts of the world that could not, on the face of it, have less in common, deal death one day to a bunch of their employees.

You also see it, of course, in the West’s continuing economic struggles, as the balance of power slips from the developed world to the developing world, in a massive structural adjustment. It is a paradox that the EU is seen as the chief culprit in much of this.

Whatever its flaws, it still represents the largest experiment in cross-border equality the planet has ever seen, yet it has never been less popular among the populations of its member countries. What solution can there be, though, if an attempt to create a level playing field for trade across economically varied nations is not part of it?