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Bangladesh in Historical Perspective

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M.T. Anderson has an excellent essay placing the tragedy in Bangladesh, now with over 400 dead, into its proper historical context

Again and again we see the same pattern, which stretches back to the original hiring of rural New England girls to operate the first spinning and weaving machines. The girls were delighted, for the most part, to leave behind rural drudgery. After a few decades, management began various cost-cutting measures that eventually became untenable. Labor activism spread rapidly and was countered, sometimes brutally. To avoid increased expenses associated with labor reform, the mill managers essentially would flush their working population and pull in a new one. Protestants were flushed in favor of destitute Catholics. The Irish were hired in the same New England mills in the 1840s, and then, when they became too demanding, the French Canadians, the Italians — waves of immigrants, one after the other.

In this way, for the last 200 years, garment manufacturing has flowed from ethnicity to ethnicity, as well as from region to region, from New England to the Middle Atlantic states, from North to South. Each group, when it begins to demand more accountability and a living wage, is discarded. Manufacturing change flows quickly to stay ahead of legislative change. Like water, industrial management seeks a route of least resistance — eventually flowing out of our shores altogether in the 1990s and, finally, flooding (among many other places) the alluvial plains of Bangladesh.

Only when we demand accountability from the clothing operators no matter where they site their factories will this cycle come to an end. That accountability must include real civil and criminal penalties in corporations’ country of origin when they benefit from unsafe working conditions at their local subcontractors.

Here’s another good piece on the local employer/thug who owned the collapsed factory and how he took advantage of the clothing industry’s economic imperatives to create an empire for himself based upon exploiting people. He may be the most hated man in Bangladesh, but as Bangladeshis know, there are more of them out there and they will continue to hurt people until the clothing industry becomes accountable for the system it fosters.

And for whatever it’s worth, the Pope has condemned the entire system of garment employment in Bangladesh as “slave labor.” Of course, if the Catholic Church transferred 1% of the energy it spends fighting reproductive choice and gay rights to workplace rights and social justice, we might get somewhere.

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