Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Terror in Your Closet
Americans remain preoccupied with the confusing motivations of the two young men who detonated bombs at the end of the Boston Marathon killing three people and injuring scores more. Why would these “boys next door” who had never had a significant record of criminal behavior suddenly turn into would be mass murderers? We may never know the full answer.
On the other hand, the cause of the deaths of hundreds of garment workers in Bangladesh this past week, and stories of agonizing amputations for crushed limbs of survivors trapped in the collapsed building requires little detective work. This industrial terrorism was caused by greed that rendered many indifferent to the workers’ well-being, whether it be the owners of the factories who ignored safety concerns, the agencies charged with overseeing plant operations, governments either too lax or too poor to enforce safety standards, the international clothing manufacturers and retailers who benefit from this system, and western consumers like you and me who enjoy paying bargain prices for our clothing. All of us are complicit in the terrorism that resides in our closets.
One hundred years ago the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York killed 146 women who were trapped by exit doors the owners had locked. Many of the victims leaped to their deaths on the streets below. The infamous Triangle fire was a scandal leading to many improved safety regulations and to the strengthening of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union which enabled the workers themselves to fight for improved work place conditions and better pay. Will the disaster in Savar lead to similar changes?
Garment production has become an $18 billion industry in Bangladesh. Neo-liberal economists claim that in spite of the safety issues, this industry is a boon to poor countries like Bangladesh where the transfer of manufacturing from Europe and North America has created employment and eased poverty. Garments account for 80% of Bangladesh’s exports. That, I suspect, is little comfort to the maimed survivors of the Savar factory collapse, or to families of the hundreds who have died, many of them still missing in the rubble. Nor is it any comfort to the victims of the November factory fire in Bangladesh that killed another hundred workers. Nor does it justify why the average garment worker in Bangladesh earns $35 to $85 a month when a living wage is calculated at $137. Nor does it justify the fact that the workers take home between .5% and 5% of the total retail cost of the garments they make, while the companies they work for garner an average of 13% of the price tag we pay.
The chain of complicity is not hard to trace. Workers choose to labor in unsafe, unregulated conditions for sweatshop wages because the alternative is abject poverty, even starvation. Owners of factory buildings keep them open even when they are unsafe because they are pressured by the companies who occupy them who themselves are working under intensely competitive conditions from international clothing companies demanding the lowest prices produced on aggressive schedules. Clothing manufacturers compete for contracts with discount retail companies who compete for consumers wanting to buy clothing at the cheapest possible price. Those consumers are, of course, many of us. In the absence of meaningful international or domestic regulation and the impotence of labor unions constantly threatened with a plant being moved to another more “hospitable” Asian labor market, disasters like the one last week in Bangladesh will continue.
Terror is unleashed in many ways, not simply at the hands of radicalized students. Far more lives are sacrificed to the terror in our closets, thriving on an indifferent greed that allows a terrorizing system to victimize poor workers in far-away places. It doesn’t have to be this way. Clothing manufacturers could collectively demand uniform international safety standards rigorously enforced in the places they do business. Retailers could agree to only purchase merchandise produced by responsible companies operating safe factories and paying living wages. Customers could choose to purchase their clothes from retailers who purchase only merchandise produced safely and justly. The problem is that the terror residing in our closets is not really felt by us; it collapses buildings far away and takes life and limb from people we never see.
Let us mourn the victims in Boston and ponder the motives of the brothers who detonated the bombs. But let’s also give some thought to the hundreds dead and maimed in Savar. And let’s acknowledge that there is no mystery to their terror. It hangs in our closets.
John H. Thomas
May 2, 2013