The average American consumer is blithely ignorant to the plight of workers abroad, such as those protesting in Bangladesh at this very moment. These laborers slave under terrible wage and work conditions to stock the aisles of market giants like Walmart, while we watch them suffer. This is not to say that we can do nothing to stop this exploitation. Indeed, we are apathetic by choice.
As the second-largest garment exporter in the world, Bangladesh has long since attracted foreign garment companies due to its astonishingly low labor costs. Yet the clothes produced here every day come at a price much higher than any currency can depict.
Three out of the four most terrible disasters in the history of garment production occurred last year in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the manufacturing hub of companies like Walmart, Sears, Disney, Calvin Klein, Tesco and Debenhams.
While these market titans pile money hiring dirt-cheap labor in Dhaka, the laborers toil for 19 hours a day in crowded, unsanitary factories. The minimum wage in Bangladesh ranks as the lowest in the world, allowing the workers under $40 each month.
Last November, 112 impoverished workers burnt alive in the Tazeen factory fire when employers locked doors to prevent them from leaving work before the targets for the day were met. Since the factory provided no emergency exits, workers dived out of windows in desperation. As the death toll rose, activists who believed this incident may jolt us into awareness were bitterly disappointed. News of the fire was fast replaced by bipartisan bickering and celebrity obsession in American media.
Later in April 2013, over 1,100 workers, mostly young women, suffocated to death when their eight-story factory collapsed in a heap. Rana Plaza had been marked unsafe by inspectors when cracks began to appear in the building. But Rana, the factory owner networking regularly with companies like Benetton and Walmart, ordered his workers to go right in, insisting that his building was safe. Six months after he sent hundreds to their death, Rana walks free, selling garments to foreign brands.
Meanwhile, families affected by these catastrophes await compensation and medical aid due months ago. When a meeting was convened at Geneva to discuss payments to these families, most companies involved with Rana Plaza and the Tazeen factory refused to even show up. Less than a third of the 29 brands involved in Rana Plaza attended the meeting. For the Tazeen fire, only two out of 14 retailers involved bothered coming. These businesses, despite their millions of dollars in annual revenue, could not cough up compensation for families that lost their breadwinners to corporate greed.
In the absence of initiatives from governments or corporations, we as consumers must push companies like Walmart to put an end to their inhumane manufacturing practices. In capitalist economies fueled by market power, we are not helpless!