In 2005, a movie came out entitled “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price.” The film focused on the introduction of Walmart super-centers into communities and the disappointments that often follow.
When these super-centers come to town, communities usually find — as Porterville likely soon will — that small, local businesses are driven out of town. The low wages Walmart offers tend to increase poverty and the increases in sales tax revenue promised are usually temporary, if they happen at all.
But, there’s another cost to our obsession with low prices and we recently saw it with the fire at a clothing factory in Bangladesh in which 112 people died.
These fires are becoming rather commonplace in that country. As Bangladesh has become the second largest clothing manufacturer in the world, working conditions have proven horrific. I wrote about one fire last year that was reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that galvanized the American labor movement a century ago.
The themes in these blazes are common: Workers were locked in the factory, unable to escape for fear they might steal.
Walmart tried to distance itself from the factory almost immediately, claiming that the clothes found at the location manufactured for them were unauthorized, the result of a subcontractor having gone rogue. Coming from a retailer that is famous for tight control of its supply chain, this was laughable.
It turns out that five of the factory’s 14 production lines were making clothing for Walmart.
The factory in question had lost its fire safety certification months ago. It was authorized to have three stories, but in fact had eight, with a ninth under construction. The owner claims he didn’t know that fire exits were needed.
Inspections conducted since the fire indicate that more than a quarter of the factories in the area lack the proper safety equipment and procedures. Labor rights groups say they are “untouchable,” the owners having too much influence with the government.
Walmart can hardly claim ignorance. Just last year, after a similar fire at another factory, there was an effort to improve the fire and electrical safety procedures at factories and retailers were asked to help fund the effort. Walmart led the opposition, citing increased costs.
Walmart is far from the only culprit. Clothing was being manufactured at this factory for Sears and Disney, as well as other retailers. There are around 4,500 such facilities in Bangladesh alone, with other countries like China also producing for us.
When it comes to a battle between American consumers desire for low prices and workers rights, consumers almost always win. The costs to improve worker conditions would be miniscule as a proportion of the apparel price, but with the problem being thousands of miles away, most Americans don’t seem to care. Getting our kids Christmas pajamas for $5.99 is more important than the lives of some far away Bangladeshis.
Clothing was once made in large quantities right here in the United States. I have family members who worked at a facility in Visalia, making jeans.
Even if one could argue that American workers are too expensive, the scale of this is mind boggling. The anti-sweatshop movement gets little coverage in the media these days, but the problem has only increased.
We really have two choices: We could lower our own standards, decrease or eliminate our minimum wage, and gut our worker protection laws and safety regulations. Maybe a few jobs would come back — most likely very few — but American workers would live in greater poverty and at far greater risk of tragedies like fire and other workplace injuries. And, fewer Americans would be able to afford these products anyway.
Or, we could say that it’s simply wrong for American workers to have to compete with those in undemocratic countries where the workforce is paid 18 cents per hour for long days and next to no safety protection. We could say that we simply won’t allow products into our country made by virtual slave labor. We could insist that labor and environmental protections and real enforcement of them be included in every trade agreement and impose tariffs on imports from countries that don’t comply.
Yes, I know, that’s called protectionism.
It’s also called humanity.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at email@example.com.