‘Human price’ in the capitalist equation (Op-Ed)
The human price of a recent fire at a Bangladeshi factory was over a hundred lives, reminding the world that for “western free-market democracy,” the words “human price” have another, very direct meaning.
On November 24, a horrific flash fire broke out in a 9-floor sweatshop in Dakha, Bangladesh, belonging to Tazreen Fashions Ltd., killing 117 and injuring 200 of its 1600 workers manufacturing garments for prestigious global brands like Wal-Mart, C&A, Sears and others. This tragedy shows yet again just how much multinational companies profit from the Third World’s quasi-slave labor exploitation system, marked by a total disdain for human life, dignity and justice.
But Tazreen was just the first link in the global supply chain delivering clothes “Made in Bangladesh” to stores in Europe and the US. Clearly, the factory was not a safe place to work and its fire safety readiness was appalling. The fire broke out in mounds of highly flammable yarn and fabric illegally stored on the ground floor near electrical generators.
Once the fire was put out, capitalist profit greed carried on in its “business-as-usual” mode. You see, Bangladesh has grown to become the world’s second largest apparel exporter after China, which is no longer the cheapest place to manufacture. Many of the Tazreen factory’s victims were rural young women earning as little as $ 45 a month in what has become a 19 billion dollar export industry for the impoverished country. Bangladesh dubiously ranks as global leader in paying its garment workers the very lowest wages in the world.
In an article published on December 7, The New York Times newspaper reported that the dead workers show a “glaring disconnect among global clothing brands, the monitoring system used to protect workers and the factories actually filling the orders. After the fire, Wal-Mart, Sears and other retailers made the same startling admission: They say they did not know that Tazreen Fashions was making their clothing.”
“We didn’t know!”, is certainly a line that rings a bell…
Bangladeshi fire-men extinguish a fire in the nine-storey Tazreen Fashion plant in Savar, about 30 kilometres north of Dhaka on November 25, 2012.(AFP Photo / Stringer)
The truth is that the long chain running from the sweatshops of Dahka to C&A and Sears outlet stores in the US and European cities has many, many links; more than just a supply-chain, it often looks like a Gordian Knot.
The many middle-men, contractors, sub-contractors, distributors, suppliers, outsourcers and sub-outsourcers serve many purposes. Some are financial, such as using dirt cheap slave labour countries. Others are legal, to ensure that reasonable safety buffers are always in place between C&A’s and Wal-Mart’s top-brass and corporate legal liability at one end of that chain, and some 19 year old working woman whose life was just snuffed out in a blaze in cheery Bangladesh, at the other end.
If anybody will finally be made “responsible”, it’ll surely be some scapegoat middle-man five, maybe ten, links down the supply-and-demand chain, as far away from C&A’s and Wal-Mart’s and Sears’ sensitivities as possible.
The New York Times adds, “Big brands demand that factories be inspected by accredited auditing firms so that the brands can control quality… Tazreen Fashions was one of many clothing factories that exist on the margins of this system. Factory bosses had been faulted for violations during inspections conducted on behalf of Wal-Mart… Yet Tazreen Fashions received orders anyway, slipping through the gaps in the system by delivering the low costs and quick turnarounds that buyers and consumers demand. C&A, the European retailer, has confirmed ordering 220,000 sweaters from the factory. But much of the factory’s business came through opaque networks of subcontracts with suppliers or local buying houses.”
They also quote Richard M. Locke, deputy dean of M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management saying, “We as consumers like to be able to buy ever-greater quantities of ever-cheaper goods, every year… Somebody is bearing the cost of it, and we don’t want to know about it. The people bearing the cost were in this fire.” Not great comfort for the dead workers’ families, I suppose… But it is a revealing definition that exploitation, not democracy; that greed, not human rights is what really drives “Western free-market democracy”.
A Bangladeshi woman mourns as she holds the body of a relative who died in a fire in the nine-storey Tazreen Fashion plant in Savar, about 30 kilometres north of Dhaka on November 25, 2012.(AFP Photo / Stringer)
The Human Price
It’s when catastrophes like these occur that the masks of Greed Capitalism fall and its multiple ugly Medusa-like heads stare threateningly at the whole world. The same thing happened in 1984 with the chemical mass poisoning by Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant in India.
Naturally, the global media help with the Corporate Over-world’s damage control with the usual “What a tragedy!”, “Oh, the humanity!”, and “Why didn’t anybody prevent this?” type commentary for the requisite number of days, shedding an alligator’s tear or two. However, they know – we all know – what the truth really is.
Because these dreadful events happen in far-off lands like Bangladesh and India, and since inhuman sweatshop conditions are the norm in “underdeveloped markets” like Mexico, Africa, India and South East Asia, it doesn’t really mean much to the West. Sure, the workers who are its victims have little or no legal or social security protection, pension funds, workers compensation insurance, health benefits or employer liability insurance protecting them. But then again, they are swarthy folk with impossible to pronounce names living in those ghastly lands.
They’re all on their own, because they are “owned” by a Behemoth “labour market” that calls the shots, all in the name of “supply-and-demand.” That same market awards a C&A CEO or Goldman Sachs trader or Wal-Mart shareholder tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars in dividends, bonuses and salaries at the top end of the chain, then gets away with paying hundreds of millions of super-poor workers $45, maybe $50 a month as “salary”.
Interestingly, the Times’ article carried as a subtitle, “The Human Price” which, more than they can imagine, can actually help put things in their proper perspective.
Perhaps the western media should start quoting “The Human Price” in nitty-gritty real numbers, just as they quote the New York, London and Frankfurt stock exchanges, or the cost of a barrel of Brent oil, or gold and silver prices. Conceptually, the closest applicable metric to measure “The Human Price” are the Foreign Exchange markets quoting national currencies.
So here’s an idea: just as every day CNN, Bloomberg, Fox, BBC and all the western global mainstream media hammer into our brains how many Euros, Yens, Mexican Pesos or Indian Pounds it takes to buy One US Dollar and vice versa, wouldn’t it help promote a more honest view of “capitalist democracy” if they began quoting the ”exchange rates” in the “Human Market”?
Just how much are the citizens of different countries and regions really worth from the viewpoint of Greed Capitalism’s Weltanschauung – its world view, so to speak?
This picture taken on 24 November, 2012 shows Bangladeshi people and firefighters trying to extinguish a fire in a garment factory in Savar, 30 kilometres north of Dhaka. The death toll from a fire at a Bangladeshi factory soared to at least 121 as rescue workers recovered 112 bodies on November 25, the national fire chief told AFP.(AFP Photo / Palash Khan)
For instance, we all know quite well that “a US Citizen” has one of the very highest values of all of the world’s citizens; that the United States stands ever ready to invade entire countries “to protect American citizens.” British, European Union and Israeli citizens are also “HVH’s” (High Value Humans).
Now, let’s be honest. Most Western countries’ constitutions poetically state that “all men are created equal”, and have certain “inalienable rights”, etc., etc., which may look nice on paper… but when reality hits, things look mighty different!
So, let’s begin with the Value of ‘One US Citizen’ and then work our way through the values of citizens of our planet’s one hundred and ninety odd nations, to see what “rates of exchange” we get. Let’s try out a few:
One US Citizen = 2 Brits; or 4 Canadians (sounds just about right);
One US Citizen = 10 Germans (Yep! Germany lost the War);
One US Citizen = 100 Egyptians; or 1,000 Mexicans; or 10,000 Iraqis, or God only knows how many Libyans, Syrians or Iranians (hundreds of thousands, surely!)
Such a rating scale could go up or down depending on how angry the White House, Congress and AIPAC are on a particular day.
Then there would be: One Israeli Citizen or “One US-Israeli Dual Nationality Bi-Citizen” would probably be worth 10 or more US Citizens.
On “The Human Price” scale, Israeli’s are tops! They are Gold; Platinum, even.
Israelis have the absolutely highest value of them all. Maybe that’s because of “supply-and-demand”; I mean there are less than 7 million Israelis out of a total global population of 7 billion; that’s 0.01per cent of mankind!
In numbers they are so, so very scarce that one would expect to never ever even hear about Israel and the Israelis, and yet…
Sorry, Americans: you guys are definitely NOT tops…
One Israeli = 10 Americans at least…
The point is that under US/UK/Israeli “Corporate democracy”, “all men are equal” but – as George Orwell aptly observed in “Animal Farm” – “some men are much more equal than others…”.
So try asking C&A, Wal-Mart, Sears how much a Bangladeshi rural young woman working 12-hour-a-day-7-days-a-week shifts to meet those huge garment orders is worth. The obvious reply will be: 45 bucks a month, take it or leave it! Why, that’s about 1% of what she’d be “worth” if she were working in New York, Chicago or London!
One final rather sobering thought just went through my mind: can any of you RT readers imagine what the “Rate of Exchange” would be between One Israeli Citizen and One Palestinian “Non-Member, Observer Non-State” Living Entity? Oh dear, my calculator just went dead…!
Adrian Salbuchi for RT
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.