Home / General / Holding Corporations Responsible for Workplace Deaths

Holding Corporations Responsible for Workplace Deaths


We don’t hear too many stories anymore like last week’s fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, where the death toll has now risen to 15. This is because we have outsourced our industrial risk to Asia and Latin America.

An 8-story building containing a clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh has collapsed, killing at least 87 people. This is on top of the 112 burned to death 5 months ago in another Bangladesh clothing factory. How many people have to die making our clothes before we pay attention?

If this all sounds like the Triangle Fire in 1911, there’s a reason for that. Clothing corporations, manufacturers, and big box stores actively want the Triangle model to exist. If you are an American or European corporation, you don’t want to employ the people who make your clothes directly. You want to order out for what you need with no responsibility. You want low prices, so you pressure contractors to keep wages and conditions as low as possible. That probably actually goes unsaid but everyone knows what “keep costs low” means. You want to split workers up into a variety of workplaces so that they can be more easily controlled and can’t unionize. Putting them on an upper floor of a building, just like at Triangle, is a perfect way to control that labor with no supervision.

The question we must ask is to what extent the corporations demanding this labor model are responsible for the unsafe working conditions of the employees? We know at least that these workers made clothes for Benetton, Dress Barn, and The Children’s Place. Should these corporations be held accountable when workers die? Wal-Mart denied having any its clothes made in the factory that caught fire, but they were proved liars on the matter. It also seems that Wal-Mart had some contracts in this factory, according to this factory profile sent out by Stephen Greenhouse of the Times on his twitter account.

I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory. If a worker dies in a factory that makes clothing for your company, the company is responsible. In my mind, this is the only way to fight the outsourcing epidemic that provides a cover for irresponsible corporate policies. The injured workers and the families of the dead deserve financial compensation. The American corporations who buy the clothes produced by this factory should be required to pay American rates of workers compensation. Ultimately, we need international standards for factory safety, guaranteed through an international agency that includes vigorous inspections and real financial punishments. Of course, we are a long ways from any of this. But we have to begin at least talking in these terms, demanding accountability for workplace deaths, whether in the United States or in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, building on yesterday’s discussion of media coverage of these events, only 2 of 63 cable news segments on the West Fertilizer explosion noted that the plant was in violation of federal standards for holding ammonium nitrate. Bad reporting on workplace conditions helps people see these events as accidents and not as the fault of specific choices corporate leaders make and for which they should be held criminally and civilly responsible.

Moreover, it’s not as if the state plays no role in allowing these violators to operate. Rather, the state actually helps them to do it. For instance, the Dallas Morning News has asked the state of Texas for a list of all factories, facilities, and dealers in the state holding ammonium nitrate (as there was also a massive fertilizer fire in Bryan in 2009 that luckily did not kill anyone because the fire fighters gave up on putting it out and instead put up a perimeter around the blaze). The state chemist’s office, which is at Texas A&M, is resisting this request and the state attorney general will decide if such information should be made public. Given that Rick Perry has said that his state’s lax regulations are fine and that further regulations would have made no difference in West, we can guess what the attorney general’s response will be.

We have a lot of work to do to make our workplaces and communities safe. Simply gathering information and publicizing what we can is the first step, one that faces significant resistance of its own.

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  • Another Anonymous

    The state chemist’s office, which is at Texas A&M, is resisting this request

    I can see where a terrorist group would be very interested in that list.

    • So would the residents who live nearby.

      • the original spencer

        But the possibility of MOAR!!! TERRA!!!!! trumps every other consideration, Erik.

        I’m disappointed in your continued insistence on stubbornly clinging to your pre-9/11 worldview.

    • wengler

      Who needs terrorists when you have our corporate leaders?

      • Manta

        Once again proving the superiority of the invisible hand of free market over backward religious fanatics in providing terror.

      • That sounds extremely anti-colonialist and it’s my sworn duty to report you to Samuelson at the Post.

        A few explosions and building collapses not only keep the free market efficient it also makes the pending reform of the safety net even more effective. Hell, even a neocon can see that.

    • As a former workplace safety worker for a major union, this is a typical company argument. If a terrorist wants to go after a chemical plant THEY WILL HIT A CHEMICAL PLANT. There’s plenty of them out in the open.

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  • DrDick

    I think that this really highlights a central issue regarding these incidents. These are not really “accidents”, but the direct and imminently predictable consequences of deliberate decisions by corporations in order to maximize their profits. It is minimally negligent homicide.

    • Hogeye Grex

      AKA – The costs of doing business.

      And as long as it’s someone else’s family getting burned up, totes affordable, eh?

    • Big Media Matt thins otherwise.

  • Bitter Scribe

    Rick Perry visited Chicago this week, trying to lure businesses away from Illinois to the “friendlier” environment of Texas. Rahm Emanuel made a crack about his ability to remember three things but refrained from mentioning the West disaster. I kind of wish he had. I’m starting to lose all my compunctions about kicking these assholes when they’re down.

    • wengler

      How could they possibly lure corporations away when the state of Illinois pays them hundreds of millions of dollars out of their own employees taxes?

      And the big state story here is how evil public union workers are for not wanting their pensions cut to a pittance.

  • c u n d gulag

    If we still give people the death penaly for murder, and the SCOTUS has said that corporations are people, why can’t we give corporations that kill people the death penalty?

    Btw – If you want me to take myself away from my absolutist “NO DEATH PENALTY” position, then make a case for greedy, neglectful, cheating, lying, owners of corporations to get the death penalty, then I might side with you on some other poorer, darker, folks.

  • Murc

    I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory.

    I’d go further than this, actually. I’d argue we straight-up shouldn’t do business with countries that don’t meet certain minimum standards of political freedom, civil rights and liberties, and other benchmarks.

    The horse has sort of left the barn on that, of course.

  • Cheap Wino

    I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory.

    Yes! Obama can ram this through congress as soon as he gives a major public speech and combines that with a little back-room cajoling. If it doesn’t happen it must mean he doesn’t want it to happen.

    • What does the Obama reference have to do with anything?

      • Another Anonymous

        It means you might as well wish for a pony, too.

        • So what? We aren’t supposed to develop conversations that eventually lead to change? A hyper focus on what is possible in the next legislative session fits a 24-hour news cycle but is a terrible way to create long-term change.

        • LeftWingFox

          “Things to work towards” is much different than “things to do right now”.

        • Scott Lemieux

          I must have missed Erik claiming that this would happen if only Obama wanted it. The fact that I think it’s ridiculous to claim that Obama could have gotten single-payer passed doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to endorse single-payer on the merits.

      • Manta

        I would add that
        1) negotiating trade agreements is one of Obama’s jobs: he could simply avoid negotiating with countries with poor labor and environmental laws
        2) the critique “If it doesn’t happen it must mean he doesn’t want it to happen” may be misplaced for the President, but it is spot on for Congress: if Congress wanted to pass such laws, it could.

        • Sherm

          negotiating trade agreements is one of Obama’s jobs: he could simply avoid negotiating with countries with poor labor and environmental laws

          Columbia would have been a good starting point.

          • JKTHs

            This times two.

      • Cheap Wino

        It was pretty much just snark channeling Dowd’s column from the other day.

        • Epicurus

          Sometimes we take ourselves a bit too seriously around here. We really need a “snark tag.” This comment would not need one.

  • Manta

    “If a worker dies in a factory that makes clothing for your company, the company is responsible. In my mind, this is the only way to fight the outsourcing epidemic that provides a cover for irresponsible corporate policies”

    It seems to me it’s not the only way: a more politically realistic way would be protectionism: ditch free market between states and impose stiff tariffs on anything produced abroad.

  • Sherm

    We haven’t simply outsourced our industrial risk, we’ve outsourced the 19th century. These jobs ain’t coming back until the 20th century arrives overseas or the 19th century returns here. Great Post.

    • Given that the 19th century is on its way back in the U.S., I’m not optimistic for the future.

  • Johnny Sack

    But but where’s the glib rejoinder that not so subtly implies that low cost clothing is more important than human lives!

    • stickler

      I’m sure Yglesias is working on it as we speak. He’s already done the “we actually benefit from mass low-wage immigration” thing a few times.

      • stickler

        Holy shit, that was fast:


        Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

        Yeah, crappy worker protection laws are fine! Watch the invisible hand!

        • JKTHs

          Unless I’m misreading, basically his argument is we need to keep these jobs dangerous so workers will get paid more? Er…

          • Yes. Among many problems with this is that dangerous work does not pay more.

          • Brett

            His argument is that all safety standards are a trade-off between what will keep workers safe and what is economically realistic. That’s how we do OSHA standards in this country, for example. Bangladesh is going to figure out its own balance on that, probably reflecting the fact that Bangladeshis are really poor compared to Americans and need/want the jobs (hence why there hasn’t been an exodus of people quitting their textile jobs over there despite industrial accidents).

            Trying to enforce US standards is worse than useless in that situation. Hell, many of these countries already have a bunch of standards that are so far outside the reality of what people are actually willing to accept over there that they just become another source of corruption.

        • Hogeye Grex

          The invisible hand is quicker than the eye.

          Just ask the guy with a black eye.

        • Oh boy….

          • shah8

            Would like to see a new post countering that particular post. I had thought that it was clumsy response. I think I see where he’s driving at–Bangladesh needs jobs that are only available if Westerners don’t want them. Missing is the actual talk of why–like how horrifying agricultural work can be, or that it’s better to eat with no hand rather than be dead with two hands, the usual global trade ricardian analysis wonkery.

        • L.M.

          For someone with neither academic training in economics nor relevant practical experience, it’s remarkable how strongly Yglesias is committed to sounding like an insufferable know-it-all.

        • JKTHs

          Yglesias derives a little too much pleasure from the invisible hand.

  • Johnny Sack

    What clothing companies don’t suck? As I was putting my shirt on this morning (Gap) I noticed it was made in Bangladesh.

    I actually like American Apparel. It’s expensive but they pay a living wage and I know that labor conditions in LA can’t be as bad as over there. But for dress clothes?

    • CaptBackslap

      For suits, Hickey-Freeman is an excellent US-made brand. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that high-end imports aren’t being made in lieu of 5th-grade attendance or anything, too.

      For shirts or pants, uhhh…J. Crew talks a lot about responsible sourcing, but I can’t recall any details other than that the Irish linen shirts are actually made in Ireland.

      Ooh, 25% off and free shipping today!

  • comptr0ller

    [thinking aloud]

    Any possibility of leveraging the guest worker program to insource non-agricultural factory jobs to the US?

  • wengler

    It’s interesting you mention the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, because after that last fire in Bangladesh I realized something quite hideous. In that factory in Bangladesh the workers were making less money than those women in 1911. Not inflation adjusted. Less.

    This country’s slave worker policies are actually worse than 100 years ago.

  • Jack Greenall

    I love the idea of holding foreign subcontracters and outsourced multinationals to US standards. But, even if it was politically workable, the regulation would be untenable. Who would investigate whether the factories were up to code? And while Walmart etc should (and do) know what’s going on in their subcontractor’s factories, the burden for small businesses to investigate every one of their suppliers or be held accountable for the failings is surely an overburden. So you carve out a small business exemption, and big chains just subcontract procurement to small business middlemen (as big agriculture does to take advantage of subsidies aimed at family farms).

    What if we refused to make trade agreements with countries that have anti-union laws, or fail to protect unions more broadly?
    At the very least, it might help to forstall the race to the bottom. One of the reasons the outsourced labour situation is so intractable is that corporations in third world countries got the jump on union suppression at an earlier stage in the national development. And it helps at home as well by not making union membership an obstacle to locating your factory domestically.

    • JKTHs

      That course of action was mentioned upthread as a more practical and politically reachable solution. Unfortunately, we got a guy in the White House who has already done the opposite with Colombia.

      • Sherm

        And was nevertheless accused in the campaign of signing no new free trade agreements.

      • Jack Greenall

        So, we’re after a solution that is practical and progressive as well as being politically feasible.

        And a pony?

  • Under the heading of Wholesale Farm Supplies on Manta I found 464 listings. There are a few that should get tossed out from the list, like the cabinetry shop that somehow got included, but you can figure most of them carry NH3.

    Yeah, it will take a court order to get them to turn loose of the list and my suspicion is that this list and their list are not going to be identical sets. How much you wanna bet a big reason for them not wanting to turn it loose is the fact that very few if any have been inspected in the last decade and there are quite a few they don’t even know exist.

    As far as industrial facilities ripe for a terrorist target, pick anything on the left hand side of the road as you come into Corpus Christi. Or any of the multitudes in the Houston area. Or Odessa or Midland. Hey, how about that fuel dump right across the road with tons of gasoline? Yeah, that is right down the road from the Wal-Mart where the fugitive from justice escaped and hid in the woods for a week. Yep, super secure area that is.

    Goodhair and his underlings have no interest in transparency.

    How much more would it cost for a pair of jeans to know they were made by somebody getting a living wage in a safe work environment? How about that box o’ wine? Knowing that they have proper facilities for a toilet and it isn’t a mile walk back to the water jug is worth an extra few dollars to me. I go out of my way to shop locally and think about who gets my dollars. Sometimes I can’t avoid it, but I do try.

  • oh no. tragic link mistake, please delete that mess.

  • Ragout

    As usual when Loomis starts opining about policy, there’s so much wrong it’s hard to know where to begin. So let me begin with the big picture. The global trade liberalization that Loomis calls an “epidemic” has been a tremendous boon to the global poor. For example, China has seen poverty rates fall from 64% in 1992 to 12% in 2009. Over 600 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty. Bangladesh has seen poverty rates fall from 70% to 43% over the same period. (World Bank figures) Poverty, by the way, is defined as living on less than $1.25 a day, so this is a tremendously big deal. It’s much more important than anything usually discussed on this blog. So I think Loomis’ call to disrupt the global trade system, is, at best, foolish.

    Loomis calls for imposing US labor law on Bangladesh. First, labor law seems to have been irrelevant to the accident. Second, US labor law sucks. Presumably Loomis doesn’t want to force Bangladesh to ban secondary picketing, for example. How about the union shop, which is legal in about 1/2 of US states? But the union shop is banned in otherwise labor-friendly countries such as Sweden and France. Should we impose sanctions on them?

    Finally, according to the AP article, the relevant laws are nothing mentioned by Loomis, but are in fact building codes. Again, US building codes aren’t generally so great, so I don’t know why we’d want to impose them on other countries. Also, US building codes are local affairs, not national laws. Building codes in LA, for example, require earthquake safety, but NY building codes don’t, for obvious reasons.

    Loomis apparently thinks building codes should be international, applying equally to the tundra and the desert, huge cities and tiny villages. OK, I know that isn’t what he thinks. I’m perfectly aware that he’s just BSing about matters he knows nothing about (Bangladesh, building codes, labor law). But ultimately, I think this ignorant lecturing to Bangladeshis, who presumably are perfectly capable of writing building codes and labor laws, is just offensive.

    • sibusisodan

      Loomis calls for imposing US labor law on Bangladesh.

      Got a cite for that? I mean, the way I read it, he calls for imposing US labor law on US companies in respect of how they do business abroad, such that the US can hold them responsible in some degree for their complicity in unsafe working practices abroad.

      That’s complex, and fraught with difficulty, but not the same as whatever you are disagreeing with. Unless you’re disagreeing that US companies could negotiate with their foreign suppliers for better standards on worker safety if the motivation was there?

      • Ragout

        Loomis also says “Ultimately, we need international standards for factory safety, guaranteed through an international agency that includes vigorous inspections and real financial punishments.” So he wants, at the very least, some kind of international OSHA. Since he mentions “labor law” I assume he also wants to extend America’s lousy labor law internationally. Loomis does nothing to acknowledge how “complex and fraught with difficulty” this would be. Or that he realizes that imposing American standards abroad could mean that millions of Bangladeshis don’t get enough to eat.

        And no, I don’t think US companies could have done anything to prevent the disaster no matter how carefully they monitored their foreign suppliers. The garment factories were just renting space in a building that turned out to shoddily constructed. The garment firms didn’t construct the building or own it. Loomis’ “solution” would do nothing at all to address the real problem.

        • sibusisodan

          So he wants, at the very least, some kind of international OSHA. Since he mentions “labor law” I assume he also wants to extend America’s lousy labor law internationally.

          Neither of those assumptions are necessarily warranted.

          Creating, agreeing and enforcing international worker-safety standards != imposing US worker-safety standards on foreign countries

          Loomis does nothing to acknowledge how “complex and fraught with difficulty” this would be.

          That’s interesting, because I assumed that this Loomis character kinda understands that this would be difficult to the point of near-impossible. I wonder whose Loomis-assumptions are more accurate, yours or mine?

          And no, I don’t think US companies could have done anything to prevent the disaster no matter how carefully they monitored their foreign suppliers.

          Why? Under what causal mechanism are they powerless?

          • Ragout

            You asked why I think US companies were powerless to prevent the accident. I already explained that, but I’ll try again. In the US, factory safety inspections do not look at whether a building is up-to-code. Building code issues are handeled by local building inspectors, since buildings are best inspected while under construction. For example, the Bangladeshi press has suggested that the problem was the steel in the concrete pillars was too thin. Were the factory owners (who didn’t construct the building) and their American customers supposed to X-ray the building’s support columns before rentintg space?

            • sibusisodan

              I already explained that, but I’ll try again.

              Well, the part you haven’t explained is how the unwillingness (understandable, since it would be a nightmare – but it’s not an inability, per se) of US companies to ensure that the premises of their overseas contractors are up to spec has anything to do with this particular case.

              I agree, a generic building in a foreign country – you just have to assume that the local building code is doing its job, unless you have reason to believe the contrary.

              But for this particular building, and this particular owner? From Scott’s follow-up post it appears that anyone giving the matter cursory attention would have to ask some more pressing questions. Such as: are those three floors on top a legal construction? Have the govt inspectors said it’s safe to work in there now?

              As to the issue at hand: you seem to be saying that because this disaster (probably) couldn’t have been prevented (I agree), therefore nothing can be done to reduce the chance of future disasters. Which is silly.

    • Poverty, by the way, is defined as living on less than $1.25 a day, so this is a tremendously big deal.

      Ooooh. Wow, that’s just tremendously awesome. A lot of people are making at least a buck and a quarter a day.

      Wouln’t wanna disrupt that gravy train.

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  • OpenPolyAG

    My comment below is an assignment for a Business Ethics course, part of the requirement for the assignment is to actually post to a blog. Thanks for the opportunity to use yours.

    I am writing in response to your blog ‘Holding Corporations Responsible for Workplace Deaths’ and your comments regarding American companies’ social responsibility to offshore manufacturing.

    You state in your blog that these companies endeavour to operate with “no responsibility” and “irresponsible corporate policies”.

    The clothing companies you refer to are run by executives that are employed to act on the behalf of their shareholders “Only people can have responsibilities” (Friedman, 1970). The executives responsibility as employees is “to conduct the business in accordance with their desires” (Friedman, 1970) the desires of the company, and not for society as a whole. Friedman famously states “the only social responsibility of business is to maximise profit while remaining within the law and engaging in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” (Friedman, 1970)

    I propose that whether these companies outsource their manufacturing or purchase product from offshore suppliers, provided they are acting within the law, that in their pursuit for profit they are in fact attempting to provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Maximising profits for their shareholders, fulfilling a need in society by supplying us (the consumer) with a product at a price we deem acceptable, whilst also creating and sustaining jobs in a highly populated, poor and developing economy. (EconomyWatch, 2010)

    You refer negatively to “keeping costs low” however if these companies had to increase the price of their products to fulfil their fiduciary duty to their shareholders, they would then dissatisfy the end user who would end up paying a higher price. This would in turn lead to a drop in demand, which would lead to reduction in supply and potential job cuts both locally and offshore. In a country ranked number 42 of the world’s poorest nations (infoplease.com, 2013) I would suggest the impact of removing these jobs would be socially irresponsible. I believe that you are incorrect in stating that these companies act with “irresponsible corporate policies” and “no responsibility”.

    The responsibility for enforcing legislation and regulation within a workplace surely sits with that particular country’s Government, in this case Bangladesh. Exports of textiles and garments are the principal source of foreign exchange earnings in Bangladesh. (Wikipedia, 2013). History would indicate the industry itself recognises the importance of maintaining a good relationship with their largest trade partner America (Bangladesh.com, 2013) and has previously made changes within the sector to meet foreign standards. For example “In 1993 employers in Bangladesh’ ready-made garment (RMG) industry dismissed 50,000 children (c. 75 percent of child workers in the textile industry) out of fear of economic reprisals of the imminent passage of the Child Labor Deterrence Act banning importation to the United States of products which are manufactured or mined in whole or in part by children” (Wikipedia,2013).

    Your solution of insisting other countries conform to American labour laws seems somewhat dictatorial to me. As you state “We have a lot of work to do to make our workplaces and communities safe” perhaps it would be more appropriate to support the International Labour Organisation who are currently working with the Bangladesh government, trade unions and factory owners to ensure a “high-level political commitment to enforcement of laws and regulations” in the country. (International Labour Organisation, 2013)

    The collapse of the building in Bangladesh is an absolute tragedy. Those employees were failed, but not by a lack of social responsibility from American companies, they were failed by a chain of individuals who it would appear had a direct responsibility to ensure their safety.


    Bangladesh.Com. (1995-2013). Exports. Retrieved 22 05, 2013, from http://www.bangladesh.com/exports/

    Economy Watch. (2010, 03 10). Bangladesh. Retrieved 22 05, 2013, from

    Friedman, Milton. (1970, 09 13). The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.
    Retrieved May 22, 2013, from The New York Times Magazine. New York Times Company.

    Information Please.2013.World’s poorest countries. Retrieved 27 05, 2013 from http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0908763.html

    International Labour Organisation. (1996-2013). Press Release. Retrieved 22 05, 2013

    Wikipedia. (2013, 05 21). Bangladesh Textile Industry. Retrieved 20 05, 2013, from

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