November 27, 2012 (LD) – 112 Bangladeshi workers perished in a factory fire last week – the cause is still under investigation. And as the tragedy made its way across international news headlines, it quickly became clear the factory was producing clothing for mega-retailer WalMart in the United States.
Image: (Getty Images) The price others pay for American consumerism. Walmart claims it didn’t know the factory was still producing goods for its stores. It also claims it will work to improve conditions for overseas workers – but if this were true, and overseas workers were working with similar wages under similar “acceptable” conditions found in America, why outsource jobs in the first place? Clearly Walmart is just paying lip service.
Associated Press (AP) reported in their article, “Walmart Admits Bangladesh Factory Was Making Clothing For Retailer Before Fire,” that:
The garment factory in Bangladesh where a weekend fire killed at least 112 people had been making clothes for Wal-Mart without the giant U.S. retailer’s knowledge, Wal-Mart said.
The report also stated:
“Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier,” America’s biggest retailer said in a statement Monday. “The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”
Regarding the conditions of the factory, AP reported:
Survivors of the weekend fire said an exit door was locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work and apparently were there just to impress inspectors, and that when the fire alarm went off, bosses told workers to return to their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their deaths from the eight-story building, which had no emergency exits.
However, what Walmart hopes the public never figures out is that if ever the mega-retailer manages to bring standards and wages up to what the West would consider “acceptable,” their offshore supply chain would no longer benefit them and their profit margins – jobs would be better off kept on American soil, where they began in the first place. Clearly Walmart has no intention of “improving” anything except perhaps better obfuscating their supply chain from the general public.
Additionally, the mega-retailer’s alibi that it “didn’t know” the factory was still producing clothing for their stores is both irresponsible and unacceptable. In order to circumvent safety concerns and liability, Walmart may have just as easily “known” and set up the arrangement to maintain plausible deniability while maintaining its profitable supply chain. Walmart is responsible for its supply chain, and if is difficult to keep track of factories scattered across the planet to fill stores in America, then that’s all the more reason to bring the jobs back home.
Walmart isn’t the only mega-corporation who has offshored American jobs to dungeons and deathtraps overseas – Apple’s relationship with Taiwan’s Foxconn is another example. Operating in mainland China, where windows must be locked and safety nets deployed below to prevent waves of suicide attempts that sweep across the oppressed, underpaid workforce (also here, here, and here) as they churn out iPads and iPhones to sate America’s consumerist hunger, Foxconn has become a notorious name in the generally under-reported world of exploited labor.
Image: Foxconn has installed “suicide nets” under the windows of upper floor to prevent deaths after waves of suicide sweep its underpaid, overworked employees. While many allegedly champion for “human rights” across the West, when they do so by tapping on their slave-made iPhones and iPads, they are merely compounding, not solving the problem.
Ironically, many who tout themselves as “liberal” and interested in human rights, can be found “tweeting,” updating their Facebook accounts, e-mailing, and discussing their pet humanitarian causes on iPads and iPhones created by the modern equivalent of slave labor.
Don’t Just Boycott Walmart – Replace it Permanently
Walmart’s questionable supply chain is not a new topic, it is simply back in the news because of a particularly tragic repercussion of its habitual disregard for human life. Campaigns to force Walmart, or Apple, or any other large multinational corporation to reform their behavior has only caused them to bury their abuses deeper, further from necessary oversight. It is only tragedies like the fire in Bangladesh that momentarily bring the truth of Walmart’s continued, willful negligence to the surface.
Many people are quick to call for a boycott – and this is indeed a superb idea. But it is an idea that will never take hold unless it is taken to the next level – by doing so, it will address the myriad of problems Walmart’s business model has created, and not just human rights abuses.
Boycotting Walmart must be done in tandem with a concerted local effort to create citizen-networks, clubs, hackerspaces, and makerspaces to pool resources together and begin replacing permanently, large multinationals like Walmart, not through mere protests or policy changes, but through local innovation and entrepreneurship. These local networks will produce small businesses and jobs, leveraging technology while giving local communities exactly what they want, and a direct hand in the manufacturing process, not merely a chance to “belly up” to the corporate-consumerist troughs filled daily at Walmart.
Developing this local infrastructure will not happen overnight, and it will not cause Walmart to shutter its doors tomorrow, or even this week. But technology is already negating the massive, centralized, scale of economy business models employed by Walmart and other mega-multinationals. And while a handful of friends and family getting together after work, pooling their resources to leverage modern technology to create a workspace within which they can create, design, invent, and produce, may seem like a small drop in a very large bucket to fill, people pursuing this solution in parallel around the country, and around the world will quickly gain momentum collectively, creating local supply chains that directly benefit local people – in the United States and in Bangladesh – no disparity required.
With all real solutions, effort, education, organization on a local level, and persistence will be required – but it is a price that is at the same time a benefit, and when compared with the continuously deteriorating economy and social fabric of Western society within the current paradigm it is mired, it seems like a small price to pay, and one that seems it should begin being paid immediately.