Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Injury to All

Yesterday was declared a day of national mourning across Bangladesh following the tragic fire that snuffed the life out of over one hundred workers at a garment factory there. Writing that the hellish event was the country's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Internet's Rude Pundit notes that "While the Bangladesh factories have attempted to eliminate child labor, young (mostly) women still end up toiling in the slave-like conditions. And those conditions can include locked doors, no fire exits or extinguishers or sprinklers, and strict rules on leaving one's station, all for 21 cents an hour..."  - And all that just so some of the world's largest and most adored apparel makers can make a quick buck.

The Quartz website has photos provided by the International Labor Rights Forum showing some of the labels found among the ashes from that deadly blaze. They include those of internationally known American brands probably familiar to those of us who have shopped the stores surrounding Temple Valley. 

In recent years many U.S. apparel giants have pledged to make their clothes "sweat-free," by only contracting with factories that distinguish themselves from sweatshops by adhering to some sort of fair labor standard. The problem is that the voluntary nature of those commitments essentially leave the fox  in charge of the hen house. In countries where labor regulations are lax, enforcing those standards is left entirely in the hands of the individual businesses headquartered there and the international firms that hire them. 

On top of that, a ceaseless maze of subcontracting makes tracing an item of clothing from factory to retail shop floor an arduous task at best for the average consumer. Your favorite dungaree seller may say that they will only work with factories that guarantee a safe and ethical work environment but without any real oversight there is no way to hold their feet to the fire, despite the recent tragedy. Over a century of needless deaths in factory fires since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire have taught us the painful lesson that in the corporate boardroom  greed tends to trump the ethics card. 

Consumers (a.k.a. everybody)are the last link holding together the chain that binds so many needle workers to a life of poverty in which they are forced to toil under some of the worst conditions imaginable. Opting out of the system isn't  a realistic alternative for most consumers unless they can spin their own textiles or live in an area where nudity is a viable option. 

Most of us have to procure some kind of clothing made by someone else. If you are at all concerned about the conditions under which that person labored to make the garment your wearing, make sure it bears a union label. Union garment worker shops may be a rare animal these days and hardly ever seen in today's emerging economies but they usually ensure a fair wage and working conditions wherever they exist. 

You may not be familiar with union labels. You won't find them on a pair of Levis or a host of other well known garments. Still they're out there and, like the people that stand behind them, they have been standing for safe working conditions and more for as long as workers have been standing up for their rights. 

Buy union-made and start wearing your clothes inside out to show the world the label and you just might start a fair trade trend that stretches from Karachi to Kalamazoo. 

Remember to look for the union label and remember "an injury to one is an injury to all."


  1. Thank you for this important, powerful post. Have never seen a union label on any clothing in any store in the US, but am going to do more research on the least offensive manufacturers. Am going to link to this later. Have reread twice.

    1. Now that I think of it, looking for the union label in a US retail store can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. I've found union made apparel (well crafted and not too pricey) on the Internet but, with the exception of shoes, they are usually brands I've never seen in any brick and mortar store. Your route sounds like a good way to go and just because something doesn't bear a union label I guess doesn't necessarily mean that it wasn't manufactured ethically. I think the ILRF's ethical consumer guide ( includes apparel produced by union shops, worker run factories, etc. and they don't all have union labels.

      I have to study up on ethical brands in Japan but I have a hard enough time just finding clothes big enough to fit. When my oldest son and I need sneakers (he's a 14, I'm a 12) we have to trek over to the big (as in big size) shoe store in Kawasaki where the choice is usually between an orange pair or a purple pair. I get the orange for extra visibility and he gets the purple ones so he won't stick out so much.

  2. Had lunch with a friend today who stayed in a hotel in Chicago recently. She raved about the incredible level of professionalism, service, quality of the hotel. She & her husband had a lengthy conversation with a server in a hotel restaurant, who told them she loved her job and would never leave it. I told her the reason for this is that hotel workers in Chicago belong to unions, so they have job security, protections, are well paid. You can feel this level of dignity and security in the atmosphere; there's not the anxiety, instability in non-union venues. The only down side is that it's hard for good managers to fire poor workers, even for cause. But otherwise, it's a great system for all.

    I have tried to "buy American" to support American industry and workers; that was incredibly challenging. So much is made in China. My thing now is trying to stay away from plastic, which is also very challenging.

    However this atrocity (only way to describe it) in Bangladesh and your post has inspired me to do more research. Get the Int. Labor Rights Forum's email newsletter, so now stay away from Vietnamese-made products after reading the Vietnamese govt. arrests homeless children to acquire labor for prison work camps. Southern states did this to African American men after the Civil War through the 1950's: arrested young men on trumped up charges, sold them as laborers to plantations and factories, where they were treated worse than chattel slavery before the Civil War, because they were cheaper, not an investment, therefore expendable. Many were abused to the point of torture. (

    Similar patterns are taking place in Asia. Read that North Korea hires out prison labor to South Korean companies, so now stay away from notorious South Korean manufacturers.

    In the past in Japan, people did not mind paying more for a well-made product made in a Japanese factory. However in the 90's, Japanese companies modeled neoliberal outsourcing....

    Re shoes, sometimes you just have to get what you can :) Can't you order online? I.E., LL Bean used to manufacture in the US (no more) and I used to mail order shoes, etc.

    Again, many thanks for your powerful, inspiring post. It's a struggle to be an ethical consumer; often slip away from the goal because it's easier when busy, tired, to not think through these issues. But this is a powerful form of social solidarity & personal ethical practice/development, mindfulness.

    1. So much of US history seems to lie hidden in the shadows. Thanks for sharing the light that the link to Slavery by Another Name sheds on this dark corner of America. I just watched the trailer for the documentary. Among other things I couldn't help but think of the current system of prison labor as it's practiced in many US prisons and jails ( and wonder if that’s not slavery by another name as well.

      BTW- After helping to get a small and not very powerful union local off the ground, I've found that it's not always that hard for a union employee to get fired. In fact, three union brothers got the axe under my two-year watch as a shop steward, but nobody went to jail - so it was kind of a victory too (really - we actually negotiated with mgmt. not to press charges in any of the cases).

      Oh and about the shoes - the bright orange shade mellows with time and in any case I've entered a contest to win a pair of Eastland shoes (one of their US/Union-made pairs - I think) so wish me luck.

  3. Unions - don't get me started. My father was head of a teacher's union at his school, his father was part of a union at his factory... Not so easy in this day and age, though.

    Take shoes. If you want hand made, they cost 10-20 times as much as factory made. In Ginza, you can get lovely shoes for 60,000 yen while the local import shop will be happy to sell stuff as low as 6,000 or even 3,000 yen. How is a consumer supposed to be able to make a choice? Free trade agreements and all kinds of rules have made it next to impossible to make any purchase based on intelligence. Consumers are literally forced to buy based on advertisement hype, brand hysteria, and no regard for the individual person who actually made the darn things.

    Thanks for posting about this Bangladesh accident. You do make a difference. If not today, or tomorrow, there will be justice.


    1. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

      Maybe these problems all stem from the same root. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, that occurred in NY over a century ago, the head of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union said it was “Greed that locked the door” on that fateful day. More than anything else, he blamed greed for the conditions that took the lives of over one hundred young women, men, and children. Hopefully someday we’ll find what it takes to root out the underlying problem and be free of these kinds of tragedies forever.