From Lawrence to Bangladesh to China to ?

Lawrence, MA: 1860. All that has changed as where industrial accidents are most likely to occur. 

On April 24, 2013, a garment factory in the Savar suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. By the time searchers called off rescue efforts on May 13, the body count stood at 1,127, and the exact toll may never be known as bodies have decomposed and no one is certain exactly how many people were in the 8-storey building.

In U.S. media sources, the Dhaka disaster was often compared to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in which 146 people died. That analogy is useful in reminding Americans that such horrors are not something confined to “developing nations,” though a much accurate comparison would be to the January 10, 1860 disaster at the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in which 145 workers were crushed and another 600 were trapped until pulled from the rubble. Like the Dhaka incident, the 5-storey Pemberton Mill “pancaked,” meaning that its upper floors fell as slabs, causing the floors below them to stack. In both cases, most of the survivors were trapped in debris pockets that allowed enough space and air to cheat death.

The Triangle disaster occurred due to an overt action–factory supervisors had locked escape doors to prevent theft and perceived malingering; passive negligence was the culprit in Lawrence and Dhaka. Pemberton was just four years old when it fell, the original building having been sold at a loss to George Howe and David Nevins, Sr. when an economic panic drove John Lowell and J. Pickering Putnam to offload it. Howe and Nevins sought to profit from their enterprise by cramming more machinery into the Pemberton. The result was not unlike what happens to a child adding one too many blocks to his tower. The Dhaka collapse was blamed on a crack in the foundation, no doubt occasioned by building four additional floors on an inadequate foundation (without permit or inspection). It didn’t help that the Sana Plaza, where the factory was located, was owned by a local politician, or that American retailers such as Wal-Mart, J. C. Penney, and other had been dawdling for several years over whether to require safety inspections of its suppliers.

Pemberton reminds us that American workers of 153 years ago were akin to those today in places such as Bangladesh; that is, they were disposable. Incidents such as the Triangle fire or the 1913 Ludlow Massacre–in which company guards brutally murdered two dozen Colorado workers–evoke outrage because of their sheer arrogance, but passive negligence has always killed more workers. And perhaps we speak of the passive incidents less because they disturb the very logic of capitalism. Do we, for instance, ask why American clothing is made in Bangladesh? Do we pause to consider that the term “sweatshop” was coined in the United States? Although the practice of sweat-inducing labor is ancient, the idea of subcontracting labor to foul factories in inappropriate dwellings is collateral damage of the Industrial Revolution and the temptation to cut costs by cutting corners is but a mild deviation of capitalist logic.

The price we pay for goods is more than “what the market will bear,” just as “profit” is more complex than what investors reap once they pay costs and wages. These things are said to be constrained by the “invisible hand” of supply and demand within self-regulating free markets. (One should note that modern applications of these principles often depart from Adam Smith’s explanation of how they are supposed to work.) It’s more complicated than this. Numerous wage and price bargains take place long before a product hits retail shelves. Within free markets, all wages and prices must be negotiated. (Socialist command economies do not necessarily have better worker safety records than capitalism, but they do experience fewer wage and price pressures.) Let’s return to the garments made in Lawrence and Dhaka.

A manufacturer making shirts must pay his workers. Wages are among the few things over which he exercises much control. “Price” is more than what consumers pay; manufacturers also face price pressures. Unless the company is a rare vertical integration that owns most of the components necessary for its product, a garment manufacturer must purchase the cloth or raw materials necessary to make fabric. He has minimal control over how much machines cost, the energy rates to power them, or the cost of parts to repair them. He may be able to negotiate transportation and handling costs, but only within a range determined by others. Wholesalers (or the retailer in the case of large firms such as Wal-Mart) tell the manufacturer what they will pay for shirts–take it, or leave it. And so on.

The bottom line is the bottom line. A manufacturer seeking profit looks to cut costs however he can, most often by constraining labor costs and capital investments. Today’s garment worker in Bangladesh was once a Mexican, who was once a South Carolinian, who once worked in Lawrence. In each case, moving production from a higher-waged to a lower-waged setting reduced labor costs. New England’s textile and garment factories began fleeing to the non-unionized South en masse in the 1920s and were pretty much wiped out by the late 1960s. Count on the fact that if labor costs rise in Bangladesh, tomorrow’s garment workers will be located elsewhere.

Manufacturers seek to cut capital costs where they can. The maquiladora phenomenon so common in the early days of the North American Free Trade Agreement was motivated as much by Mexico’s loose environmental standards as its low-wage structure. Numerous profitable American firms found they could increase profit by locating just across the border, where they wouldn’t need expensive air scrubbers or have to worry about what they dumped into landfills and streams. Even consumer safety laws could be avoided. Volkswagen, for instance, continued making the original Beetle in Mexico long after it disappeared from the U.S. market. It made money by eliminating some of the steel in side door panels, frames, and bumpers required under U.S. safety codes. Or maybe you just do as was done first in Lawrence and more recently in Bangladesh–take advantage of lax inspection codes and ignore things such weight capacity and human density. Maybe you slap up the cheapest possible building and hope for the best.

Consumers routinely fail to see what documentary film director Robert Greenwald dubs “the high cost of low price.” It is a price literally paid in blood and, in an age of declining labor unions, globalism, and greed-driven investment, seldom has it been so easy to exact that price. The global business community continually insists that regulation destroys competitiveness and that free trade benefits workers. One need not convert to command-economy socialism to refute this–simply look at the track record of laissez-faire and let the record speak for itself. That past is why societies that place quality of life above either profit or tyranny have “mixed” economies in which both private and public enterprises thrive, and in which sensible regulation is seen as the handmaiden of opportunity. Without such standards the only unknown is who will be tomorrow’s Lawrence or Dhaka.

By the way, on June 2 the real analogy to Triangle occurred when 119 Chinese workers died in a poultry plant. There was just one exit from the building and owners had locked it!

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