Faded glory


The account brought tears to my eyes. It was a New York Times story that focused in part on Palash Mian, a young garment worker in a Bangladeshi factory. He was trapped in a bathroom as the building went up in flames around him and the last of his air turned to choking smoke. He used his phone to leave a final message for his mom—that he would die there and they should identify his body by the black shirt he wore. I can’t say he went bravely because in fact it sounded like he was scared and desperate for more life and would have done anything for it. But the place was on fire and the windows were barred. And it’s true, he was found in the bathroom. I think he was making shirts or pants or something for me.

Afterward there were a lot of excuses and the perfunctory condolences and expressions of haplessness from Sears and Walmart. Some 112 workers died for nothing. Just as they worked for nothing. They made the minimum wage or less of US$24.30/month and that really is nothing, despite the usual army ant regiments of excuse-makers who crawled out from under every rock to say that nevertheless, this was the workers’ pathway out of poverty and also, them’s the breaks.

What they really mean is this:

“News reports about an April 2011 meeting on factory safety in Bangladesh appear to indicate that Walmart and other retailers have been unwilling to pay the higher prices for clothes that would be needed to make factories safer.”

This is why there will be no end to the Bangladeshis’ dying.

But to understand the truth of this you have to dig even deeper. If you look at the fortunes of middle and working class America over the last 40 years or so three trends are obvious. One, wages have stagnated beginning in about the late ’70s. Second, globalization and free trade began their ascent to what is now effectively their total victory. The increased mobility of capital to take advantage of labor arbitrage kept wages flat where it didn’t eliminate them entirely as Western workers competed directly with their counterparts in the developing world. (In the US in particular you can also see a marked decline in unions, from about 20% of the workforce in 1980 to about 12% today.) Third was the rapid and massive expansion of credit and the resulting indebtedness, culminating in the real estate boom, bubble and crash of the last decade as homeowners borrowed against the rising values of their homes.

It was credit that put the middle and working class in a position to be able to sustain the standard of living to which their real wages increasingly did not entitle them. In fact, it wasn’t just credit alone. It was also the progressively cheaper prices of goods enabled by the shift of manufacturing production [link] to developing nations. Like Bangladesh, for instance.

Now imagine if credit hadn’t been so freely available, or interest rates were always relatively high, or homeowners hadn’t been able to so easily borrow against their mortgages. The depressed real wages of the middle and working classes would have made those class’ actual, growing poverty much more apparent. And people slipping into poverty typically don’t take it very well, least of all those used to a life of relative ease and abundance. It’s often a recipe for social unrest and even revolution as demonstrated both by ancient history, the developing world since forever and, more recently, the sinking fortunes of various European countries.

Here is the truth: Walmart, now the world’s largest retailer, second largest company by sales, and biggest private employer, has at least for the last 25 years saved America from unprecedented social strife. Walmart gets the most customers because it represents what most consumers can actually afford. This isn’t a good sign (Walmart says 20%-25% of its customers are “unbanked”; the only conceivable reason why a person in a modern society would be unbanked would be because they’re too poor to have a regular bank account). Its ability to pump very cheap goods back to America allows increasingly poor Americans, and Westerners in general, to consume well above their means in contrast to what would have been the case had those same goods continued to be made in the West with its relatively high cost of production in the form of wages, regulations, taxes and social benefits—ironically, the same wages, regulations, taxes and social benefits that make Western countries desirable places to live and places like Bangladesh less so. In this way the subsistence wages and substandard working conditions Bangladeshis and others have endured are a subsidy to the maintenance not just of the West’s overall economic wealth, but also of its socio-political stability.

Palash Mian died so that we can live as well as we do. This is the truth.

Bangladeshis might try to have laws passed that protect them, just as happened in the wake of the 1911 Triangle factory fire in New York. But our governments won’t support them. We know this because our governments support Bangladeshi elites who promise to do little or nothing to improve the situation. The evidence is in the fact that since 2006, over 500 Bangladeshis have died in factory fires. Yet we file no complaints with the World Trade Organization laying out that we will sanction or refuse to trade with Bangladesh should it fail to raise standards. Unlike in certain other places, we make no threats of invasion to free the oppressed. In fact, because Bangladesh operates under a free market the workers are already assumed to be free.

In this way, the pressure cooker of worker discontent will build and build, and our psychic deficit will build and build. We’ll act very surprised, even offended, when it blows up.

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