This season of giving, charity and "goodwill toward men" is also when Americans buy millions of dollars worth of clothes for themselves and others that were made in Bangladesh by workers in crowded, unsafe sweatshops who are paid a minimum wage of $37 a month.
We should care more than we do about this contradiction.
The Bangladeshis' plight has caught the world's attention for a brief moment due to the recent factory fire outside Dhaka, where 112 garment workers died producing clothes for western retailers such as Walmart, Sears and Disney (all now say the Tazreen Fashions factory was not authorized to do their work). Some workers jumped from upper floors to escape the flames after finding factory exit doors locked, according to survivors.
The facts are eerily reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in which 146 garment workers, mostly immigrant girls and women, died in lower Manhattan because exits had been locked to prevent worker theft. Within two years of the Triangle fire, more than 30 labor laws were passed in New York requiring safer conditions and better wages.
Maybe more than a century later, there will be an equally satisfying result from the Bangladesh fire, though I doubt it. Bangladesh lures businesses with its "race to the bottom" wages and loose regulations. Like rats to a garbage dump, global retailers have rushed in, making Bangladesh the world's second leading garment exporter.
The sad, enduring truth is that exploitation is good for business. Mistreating workers has proven an almost irresistible economic model throughout human history. What's unforgivable is that the United States continues to allow robust trade with countries that embrace the practice.
Even ostensibly pro-worker Democrats pay little more than lip service to workers' rights abroad. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Dhaka earlier this year, she was asked about the repression of workers trying to organize (it's believed worker advocate Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered by security forces in April for organizing activities, though it's not been proved). Clinton urged Bangladeshis to continue this "very important struggle." But she didn't promise to help.
And the Obama administration could help. It could enforce its Generalized System of Preferences agreement with Bangladesh that promises workers "acceptable" wages and safety conditions as well as the right to organize. But the administration has done little to breathe life into those provisions, according to Stephanie Luce, associate professor of labor studies at CUNY in New York. Luce worries that those GSP rights are in danger of being weakened as the administration pursues its goal of freer trade in Asia.
We're going backward on a promise of shared humanity.
Some Americans think that people in poor countries are lucky to have any job, even if the hours are punishing and the pay is so paltry that it barely affords subsistence. It's a self-serving attitude, since we reap the rewards with cheap goods. But down deep, do we really think it's okay for teenage girls and women, the bulk of garment workers, to work 14 hours or more per day, six or seven days a week, for as little as 21 cents an hour?
Their world is not that far removed from that of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens' tale of workhouse brutality in 19th century England. In the well-researched Dickens & the Workhouse, Oliver Twist & the London Poor, author Ruth Richardson says Dickens had been a gallery reporter in Parliament, recording and transcribing events around the time new punitive rules for the poor were established. Parliamentarians held the contemptuous view that the paupers who couldn't provide for themselves and landed in workhouses were indolent and deserved to be worked hard and half-starved, according to Dickens. It was a convenient falsehood.
So, too, are the poor kept down today in Bangladesh and places like it, not due to their own lack of industry, but as unwritten national policy where governments conspire with corporate powers to extract labor on the cheap. We could change this. But it would take Americans caring about it at least as much as, say, what to get their dog for Christmas.