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Where Lives and Labor are Cheap, the Cost to Humanity is High

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Saturday 7 garment workers in Bangladesh were killed when a fire raced through the facility where they worked. Officials are investigating accusations that the only emergency exit was locked. Just two months ago, 112 Bangladesh garment workers were killed in another factory blaze. The doors there were locked as well. 

Since 2005, more than 600 garment workers have lost their lives in factory fires in Bangladesh.

Where labor is cheap and lives are not valued, human capital is expendable and the cost to humanity is high. 

It is hard to fathom that despite stories of such intense loss that there are still people in the world who would take such ridiculous measures risking harm to their workforce. One would think that the loss of 112 souls would have an impact on managers, causing them to reflect and reconsider their own practices within their facilities. Sadly that does not appear to be the case. In Bangladesh, as in many parts of the world of similar economic conditions, the regulatory and legal environments are not conducive to encouraging - or demanding - safe workplace practices. 

It really was not that long ago that our own country shared a similar trend in industrial accidents. Fortunately for us, our society ultimately values human life, and made critical changes to safety and regulatory practices that eventually improved that situation. Whether the same holds true for Bangladesh and countries of similar environment remains to be seen. However, we as a nation of consumers can ultimately impact the trends in those parts of the world. We can make a difference.

Corporate America can review its supply chain, and demand better of those it does business with. This has already started. After the November fire that killed 112, it was discovered that a global supplier to Walmart had subcontracted that facility to provide clothing for the retail giant. As a result, Walmart has put suppliers on notice that they will be dropped immediately if they subcontract their work to factories that haven't been authorized by them. Other retailers should take the same steps, and if Bangladesh manufacturers cannot comply with the most basic protective measures, they should be dropped. They, and the retailers, are not worthy of our business otherwise.

I would pause to stress that third world manufacturers need to first be given the opportunity to respond and improve. All too often, we as Americans tend to apply our western economic standards to the rest of the world. This is not always a reasonable expectation. We have all heard stories about foreign factories who are accused of paying "substandard wages", or employ people who are deemed by us too young to work, or work people too many hours for our standards. I am not necessarily defending all those actions, but the end result in these cases is often the closing of a particular factory that has fallen under the scrutiny of our western eyes. What is not discussed in those situations, is that the employees of that factory, due simply to our moral outrage at their mistreatment, are now out of a job. Quite often those workers were the sole support for their extended families. Whether we like it or not, there are places in the world where five dollars a day still pays the rent and puts food on the table. For all retailers to just pull the plug on Bangladesh and leave would bring great harm to those workers as well. 

However, this is not simply an economic issue or a matter of wages our society deems unjust. It is a matter of survival, and while economic realities differ greatly in various parts of the world, fundamental safety and respect for human life is morally universal. Therefore we as consumers, and the retailers with which we do business, indeed have an obligation to expect the rest of the world to meet a common basic standard; to hold the safety and wellbeing of their workforce, their human capital, in the highest of regards. 

Just because labor and living is not expensive, doesn't mean life has to be cheap. We can see to that with how, and where, we spend our vast western dollars.

 

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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.

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