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Fight for better working conditions is 'Made in USA'

My workday attire was turning out to be a regretfully mixed bag, I realized, as I took a closer look at the clothes I had laid out for what has become my casual Thursday.

The Mossimo blue jeans, Vera Wang print T-shirt and the Clarks shoes I had purchased at Target, Kohl's and Bealls, respectively, were all "Made in China." The perfect-for-layering, plum-colored blazer I ordered from a Massachusetts mail-order company called Chadwicks came from the Philippines. And while mom might think it unladylike of me to share here, even my unmentionables were produced in a foreign land — India — though the patent for the brassiere heralded the good, old USA.

Yay for us!

An upside, I guess, along with the fact that none of the tags said, "Made in Bangladesh."

Even so, it's a sorry admission for a gal who hails from a bloodline of union laborers — carpenters, electricians and "brickies" — who once held fast to the "Made in USA" mantra. It was a woeful epiphany that prompted me to examine my clothing purchases, only because of a tragic event that occurred in a third-world country while consumers here were in the throes of the Black Friday weekend extravaganza.

According to figures released by the National Retail Federation, 247 million shoppers ponied up an estimated $59.1 billion on holiday purchases over the Black Friday weekend. I'm guessing some of those things were made in Bangladesh, where more than 100 workers perished in a fire that same weekend at a garment factory called Tazreen Fashions.

Manufacturing clothing is a $24 billion industry in Bangladesh, a country that has recently taken to exporting to China, where rising wages for factory workers have been eating into profits, as well as the United States, where we don't make much of anything anymore.

Charred accounting books and salvaged clothing tags showed that some of the clothing being made at Tazreen Fashions was destined for corporations such as Walmart, Sears and Disney. Further investigation showed that emergency exits had been locked. Workers — some being paid as little as $40 a month — had no way out when the fire broke out.

It's a "history repeats itself" kind of scenario, reminiscent of New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 when 146 garment workers were killed, many of them immigrants, some of them as young as 13 to 14 years old. That tragedy served as a turning point in our own country's labor movement, prompting legislation to improve safety standards, strengthening labor unions such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and bringing a new awareness to the horrific practices in what came to be known as America's sweatshops.

Money talks, and so it is very good news that Americans hit the stores over Black Friday weekend. Call it a sign of consumer confidence or the bounding success of human herding.

Even so, some Walmart employees rebelled, protesting for better benefits and wages and corporate encroachment on their own Thanksgiving holiday.

This week, thousands of workers have streamed out on to the streets of Bangladesh to protest horrific working conditions and low wages for sweatshop workers in their own country.

A "history repeats itself" scenario, perhaps. Made in the good, old USA.

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@tampabay.com or (727) 435-7307.

Fight for better working conditions is 'Made in USA' 11/30/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 8:45pm]
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