What’s the Walmart connection?
What is the value of workers’ lives under global capitalism? Once again, Bangladeshi garment workers have been sacrificed on the altar of capitalist profits.
A blazing inferno swept the Tazrin Fashion plant in Ashulia Savar, outside Dhaka, the capital, on Nov. 24, in possibly the country’s worst industrial fire. Local media reported that at least 120 died, mostly women. Hundreds were injured.
Two days later, thousands of outraged Bangladeshi workers and their supporters demanded justice as they marched through Savar. They blocked streets, threw rocks at factories, smashed vehicles and blocked a major highway. More than 500 factories were forced to close as the protests grew larger and more militant.
This terrible tragedy could have been averted if safety measures had been implemented. Most who perished were trapped inside the multistory plant, where there were no staircases or emergency exits leading outside. Exits and gates were locked. Managers barred workers from leaving their workstations. At least 12 people died when they jumped to escape the flames.
Clothing manufacturing plants are notoriously dangerous workplaces. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died and thousands more were injured in scores of frequent garment factory fires, says the anti-sweatshop group Clean Clothes Campaign.
There are more than 4,000 garment factories in the country, with 3.5 million workers. Many work places don’t conform to basic safety standards, which have been enacted only due to labor unions’ demands.
The National Garment Workers Federation, which fights for these workers and seeks to prevent these catastrophes, says that factory owners routinely flout safety regulations throughout the garment industry. So too do many government officials, as a large number have investments in these businesses.
Garment is the largest industry in the country, which is the second-biggest clothing exporter in the world. The Bangladeshi economy garners $20 billion a year from garment sales abroad, mostly to U.S. and European corporations, including Walmart, JC Penney and H&M. Tazrin Fashion is owned by Tuba Group, which exports goods to Walmart, IKEA and Carrefour. Li & Fung of Hong Kong purchases garments from Tazrin for Walmart.
Walmart executives are equivocating about whether Tazrin produced goods for them. However, major media — with photographic evidence — report that “documents and logos” found in the fire’s debris showed the plant manufactured clothes for Walmart’s “Faded Glory” line.
Walmart is the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh, which provides the lowest labor costs. It is the world’s largest private employer, notoriously anti-union, denying its workers everywhere decent wages, working conditions and organizing rights.
Global capitalists cry crocodile tears
Who is to blame for this disaster? The company’s owners are immediately responsible, for seeking to maximize their profits while devaluing the lives of their own work force. However, the transnational corporations that purchase goods at Tazrin and other factories cannot be let off the hook. Bangladeshi workers and unions lambast them for disregarding basic safety measures in the plants that supply their stores.
Although the global capitalists cry crocodile tears when a disaster happens and workers die, they do not insist on crucial preventive measures from either the garment company owners or the manufacturers’ entity, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. In fact, the imperialists view the workers only as a means to earn super-profits by paying them low wages and by refusing to fund improvements in working conditions, including those that are life saving. If the workers die or are injured, they are replaceable, say corporate bosses.
It’s only the workers, their unions and allies who fight for safe working conditions. Earlier this year, 350 clothing factories near Dhaka closed for a week as workers demanded better, safe working conditions, along with wage increases.
However, it’s the capitalists who are responsible for these needless worker deaths, another major reason why this brutal system must be replaced by socialism, which puts human lives first and assigns the profit motive to the dustbin of history.