BY PAT WATSON
The weekly wage for garment workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, where in 30 minutes a historic March 25, 1911 fire took the lives of 147 workers, was based on piecework, with the average weekly salary for a 60-hour work week being $12. The victims were mainly female immigrants.
More than a century later, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where close to 400 died and another 2,500 were injured in a garment factory collapsed, the weekly wage can be as low as $9.50.
In 1911, to stop suspected thefts, the owners of the Triangle factory kept exit doors locked, hence the difficulty in trying to escape. In the Dhaka disaster that occurred on April 24, 2013, it has been reported that workers were told to continue working even as the building was collapsing. Reports are that the top three floors of the building were illegally constructed.
So any warm, fuzzy feelings that buying labels with ‘Made in Bangladesh’ meant supporting industry and workers in that country are changing in light of the revelation that brands like Loblaw subsidiary Joe Fresh were coming out of that factory.
During the immigration wave of the 1970s, the garment district south along Spadina Avenue was a hive of undocumented people working for sub-par wages. Fast-forward a couple of decades or so, and immigrants with low, or no, English competency work in their homes making garments for which they are paid by the piece, just as it was over 100 years ago.
Fashion trends will change, but clearly whether in China, Bangladesh, or right here in Toronto, the working conditions for those who make the clothes we parade around in have not. But which working person living here in Canada would take a job paying 14 cents an hour?
The factory collapse in Bangladesh is not just about the lack of due diligence by Loblaw and Joe Fresh executives, it is about the larger global pattern of inequality. It is also about the need for every capable person of working age to be gainfully employed.
‘Free trade’ and ‘free market’ are nice titles for what is really being done to workers worldwide. In reality, a small group of money-mountain climbers have made it to the top, carting ever larger piles of profit for shareholders, while the majority of workers band their bellies and try to make it through another working day.
World Bank figures give us the cheery news that the rate of extreme poverty has declined under this system despite the recent recession, so that more people now earn above the $1.25 a day poverty line. Look at that figure again: $1.25. That is the cut-off line for extreme poverty.
The free market model can lay claim to contributing to this decline in extreme poverty, yet at the same time it puts workers in competition with each other across the globe, as governments scramble to the bottom to provide open doors for corporations to enter their jurisdictions.
That is how the economy of Bangladesh – a country that has been a symbol for poverty and underdevelopment – now sees close to 50 per cent of its revenue from these factories. But the human toll is unanswered, and when workers become activists for better wages in China, corporations move to Bangladesh, or wherever the next hot spot for low wages emerges.
People with long memories may recall the ‘free zones’ in Jamaica during the 1980s. Employment went up for a while for low skilled workers in that country, but so did labour rights abuses. Later, workers were brought in from Asian countries, made to live in segregated housing within the zones and paid even lower wages than the Jamaican workers. Then, in a show of the remarkable mobility of these outposts, literally overnight, the factories – and the jobs – were gone, moved to yet another jurisdiction.
It may be a surprise to recognize that many of these economic patterns that first emerge in so-called underdeveloped countries eventually make their way here.
A note on empty gestures…
Of course Tim Hudak and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives (PCs) want the job of running the government. So Monday’s call by the Opposition PC’s for a non-confidence vote over the Liberals’ handling of the gas plants cancellations in Oakville and Mississauga made for great show, with little ballast, especially considering that today’s budget presentation will be fodder enough.