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Holding Corporations Responsible for Workplace Deaths

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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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