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Sweatshops Kill


I am far from surprised that a sizable number of the deaths in the Mexico earthquake are sweatshop workers toiling in an unsafe building.

In Mexico City, social movements and working people are in mourning after the devastating 7.1-magnitude earthquake of Sept. 19 demolished a four-story factory in the working-class Colonia Obrera district of the Cuauhtemoc borough, claiming dozens of laborers’ lives.

While authorities allege that around 25 workers died in the disaster, locals claim the number is impossible because anywhere from 50 to over 100 workers were employed at the sweatshop-like facility. Most of the workers were undocumented Asian women, as well as Central Americans, who worked as seamstresses.

The dramatic collapse of the building, located on Simon Bolivar #168 at the corner of Chimalpopoca, was captured in one of the most widely-shared videos to come out of the earthquake. Taken within a minute of the initial quake, the video shows teenagers nervously talking in a parking lot before a large red building in the background collapses in a span of about two seconds.

The factory’s collapse – and the authorities’ subsequent response – is the latest embarrassment for Mexico’s government, which is reeling from widespread popular anger over social conditions that made the impact of September’s twin earthquakes immeasurably worse.

The number of dead still remains unclear. Because Bolivar #168 was hidden in the shadows of the informal economy, authorities were never informed of how many people were actually employed at the facility.

While many of the workers at the building were Central American – causing a delegation of diplomats from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to visit the scene – most of the identified bodies recovered belonged to Mexican nationals or workers from South Korea and Taiwan. The whereabouts of several employees still remain unknown to the public.

“Industrial homicide” was the term La Izquierda Diario used to described the tragedy, noting that culpability for the deaths doesn’t lie with “nature” but with the employers who exploited the workers under such precarious conditions within such a flimsy building. While the disaster may have been natural, the deaths were unnatural and a result of industrial homicide or social murder.

In one sense, this is not so different from most natural or human-caused disasters, in which the poorest people suffer the most. That we can see everywhere. In this case, earthquakes happen in Mexico and it was probably a bad idea to site a city of 20 million people on top of a drained lake bed, but it was the flimsiness of the building that contributed to these specific deaths. But it is also worth noting that the entire sweatshop industry kills poor women around the world over and over again. The floor in this building where the sweatshop was of course made clothing. The apparel industry remains, as it has been from its beginnings, a pioneer in exploitation. We don’t know who these clothes were made for and in a small operation like this, we will likely never know, but if they are made for a western company, we should be able to hold that company financially and legally accountable for those deaths. As I have stated on many occasions, only through forcing the global capitalist system into a global system of legal frameworks bolstered by national laws and standards when needed can we protect the workers of the world. That basic workplace safety would be incredibly easy to accomplish wherever companies site a factory makes this all the more outrageous. It’s quite simple–corporations and their leaders don’t care whether workers live or die.

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