BY PATRICK HUNTER
The building collapse in Bangladesh is not the first tragedy of its kind in that part of the world and, regrettably, it will not be the last. Simply put, improving work conditions cuts into profits. The unstated cold, hard fact of that statement is that there are some lives that are expendable.
Just last year, there was a fire in a garment factory in Pakistan that claimed the lives of more than 300 people. Another fire, around the same time, also in Pakistan, claimed the lives of about 25 people in a shoe factory.
There is enough blame to go around. The profit motive is one, for sure. And it cannot only be attributed to western corporations alone, much as I am troubled to say that. A critical element originates at the local level.
It is very much the responsibility of local governments to ensure that there are standards to which engineers and contractors must adhere in the construction of a building. Those standards become more critical depending on the purpose for which the building is to be used. The requirements for a single-family residential structure, for example, are vastly different from one to be used as a factory.
Early reports out of Bangladesh suggest that the building featured additions that lacked the very basic wall supports needed. The collapse was inevitable. In all likelihood, the building’s capacity was also exceeded. In other words, it was housing more people and machinery than it was capable of handling.
In the fire mentioned above, it was believed that emergency exits were closed or blocked, which forced people towards one exit. Thus, the stampeding effect also contributed to the high death toll.
It may very well be that the appropriate regulations and building codes are in place in these areas. However, as is often the case, inspections are rare or inadequate and “blind eyes” are turned for other considerations.
Then there is the factor of the underpaid worker. There is no question that high unemployment rates in these countries enable cheap labour. In Canada, for example, we can talk about workers’ rights and expect that, to some degree, they will be respected. The scenario in a developing economy is less straightforward. One gets the sense that trade unions, if they exist, have limited or very little clout. One can also ask the question: To what extent are they complicit in not protecting the safety of their membership – the workers in these factories?
Now, let us look at the situation from this end of the spectrum. The mantra of business is maximum profits. Fulfilling that mantra requires selling your products at a price that the economy will tolerate and is competitive. Complementing that principle is reducing or holding in check your costs of production. That means, cheap (or shall we say, “inexpensive”) raw materials, efficient factories or production lines and cheap labour.
So, what do you do? Buying or building your own factory is not a preferred option, so you source suppliers who will guarantee you a certain rate. You are therefore removed from the day-to-day regulatory compliance requirements. All you are interested in is that your supplies will arrive on time and the quality you expect is maintained. You pay and off you go. The supplier/factory owner deals with all the other requirements.
You, as a shopper, enter the chain store and you find that fashionable item that may make you stand out in the crowd. The process of elimination may go something like this: Do I look good in it? How much is it? How much room do I have on my credit card? You may look at the label for the proper care of the fabric, and you may see the “Made in …” but it doesn’t register.
Price may not be the first consideration but if the tag says “on sale” or “marked down”, you believe you are getting a bargain. It does not matter that the seller still makes a significant margin on that “marked down” item that allows him or her to pay the employees, the lease and other incidentals of doing business and still enjoy a sizeable profit.
So, essentially, what you have is an item that was prepared by a worker whose income for a week barely buys food for a day, being sold, even at a bargain-basement price, for a sizeable profit for the final seller.
What would it take, then, for the large chain stores who buy large volumes of these items, to attach worker-safety standards to their suppliers? A small reduction in profits? A slightly higher retail price? Just think how much more comfortable you would feel if you knew that worker safety and fair wages were paid to provide the item you just bought.
This week it may be clothing. Next week it may be mining to produce the jewellery or other consumer products. The week after that it may be in crop production such as producing the chocolates or the sugar that we love to consume.
Makes you think of slavery and sugar production in the Caribbean, doesn’t it? Does it make us, the consumer complicit?