Sears, Disney, and Walmart with Blood on their Hands

Sears, Disney, and Walmart with Blood on their Hands

Undoubtedly you’ve heard about the horrific fire that took the lives of 117 people in a Bangladeshi garment factory this past weekend.

The factory made clothing for Walmart, Disney, and Sears. In short, the safety conditions were atrocious – insufficient fire escapes, blocked exits, and a lack of sprinklers. Three managers have been arrested, charged with insisting the alarm was a routine fire drill and that workers remain at their stations. There have even been allegations of arson.

Today, in the third straight day of protests, over 5,000 people walked out of their factory jobs in a massive demonstration against the appalling conditions in Bangladeshi factories which led to such needless loss this past weekend.

This story will surely snowball into a complex, murky, and political affair where everyone will try to evade responsibility. As early as Monday Walmart started distancing itself from the events by firing the supplier who subcontracted work to the Tarzeen factory. The factory was given a “high risk” safety rating by a Walmart audit in 2011, and according to the retail giant, the supplier was working with the factory in violation of Walmart’s policies.

Sadly, this story will soon meld into a long history of similar incidents and quickly be forgotten by most customers. Before that happens, I must make two points.

First, we must quit talking about the “garment workers” who died as if they are some sort of tradable commodity. For God’s sake, these are people. Mothers, brothers, uncles, sons and daughters. Hard working, creative, loving, and dignified people. Their lives are just as precious as yours or mine. And their families will ache and morn just as you or I would if we lost our sister or father in a needless workplace accident.

Second, we need to take responsibility for our own indirect role in this incident. Regardless of the eventual findings of the inquiry that will unfold, at the bottom of it all, there is only one ultimate culprit: our never-ending thirst for cheap goods. We need to decide that a pair of cheap jeans is not worth the cost of someone’s life. We can all shop from trusted, transparent, and third-party certified brands. Factories like the Tarzeen factory exist precisely to meet our persistent demand for unnaturally cheap goods. If we stop the demand, these factories will conform to safety standards or will go out a business.

But ultimately, it’s a choice we have to make as individuals.

November 27, 2012