In November a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh killed at least 112 garment workers and injured over 200 more. Since then there have been 41 more fires in Bangladesh garment factories, killing 9 and injuring 660. In the past decade 600 garment workers have died in Bangladesh, and that was before more than 600 people were killed when the Rana Plaza building collapsed a few weeks ago. Shortly before this happened workers reported hearing a noise like an explosion on the third floor, and an engineer, horrified by cracks he found in the support pillars, told administrators that the building must be evacuated. It wasn’t.
On May 4th Bangladesh’s Finance Minister commented on the Rana Plaza collapse, saying it wasn’t “really serious.” Walmart, which sells clothing manufactured in Third World countries including Bangladesh, has stopped doing business with the most blatantly unsafe factories (though work is often subcontracted to these places anyway). But retailers like the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic have refused to take any action to improve working conditions, saying they “did not want to pay factories more money to help with safety upgrades.”
Garment workers in Bangladesh make a whopping $38 per month. Low wages and an abject disregard for worker safety have allowed large corporations to make a lot of money selling clothing manufactured in countries like Bangladesh. Many corporations today tout their social responsibility programs, yet despite claims they are working to prevent more disasters, these tragedies keep happening.
But that’s to be expected in the Third World. America is different; after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, where the exits were blocked and 146 young women died, worker safety has been a government concern, and workplace safety – as well as programs that help workers who are injured on the job – have made the American worker one of the safest in the world.
But these programs impose regulations. And in a deeply divided country where many see regulations as yet another sign of a broken government, some states – especially Texas – have done their best to skirt them.
Texas, which has no state occupational safety program, has an occupational fatality rate twice that of California. Worker compensation programs are voluntary, which leaves many workers without insurance in the case of an injury. But Texas isn’t just morally opposed to worker safety; zoning laws are so limited that schools, apartments and nursing homes can be built near dangerous industrial sites.
Texas has experienced some of the worst industrial accidents in history, including the 1947 Texas City fertilizer explosion that killed over 500 people. When a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded on April 17th it killed 14 residents – mostly first responders – injured more than 150 and leveled scores of homes. Yet an assistant Fire Marshall dismissed it as an “act of God” – something that couldn’t have been foreseen or prevented. This despite the fact that the fertilizer plant hadn’t been inspected since 1985, was guilty of numerous safety violations and was improperly storing huge amounts of explosive ammonium nitrate.
“It’s not anything that anybody thought could happen,” said an official of the adjacent – and now demolished — school. But that isn’t true. Texas, like Bangladesh, has profited by lax safety regulations – despite repeated examples of why regulations are necessary. Everybody knew something like this could happen – they just didn’t care.
Though regulations can be a pain, to ignore safety measures for the sake of profit is deplorable. Yet some continue to see it as “good business.” Until humanity evolves beyond valuing profit over lives, the need for strong safety regulations will remain vital.