Our world has some serious issues to address. Today in international finance, we continued to touch on a subject that is clearly very near to my professor’s heart. We watched a video at the end of class (see below) that showed working conditions in the U.S. 100 years ago and how little we have learned since then.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred in New York in 1911, and killed over 100 young women. As a result, the U.S. came together to fight for factory worker rights and fair working conditions. And we got them! How fantastic for us to figure out the appropriate way to treat people for once (as long as they’re our people).
Now, 100 years later, these same working conditions that we protested before continue to exist all across the globe. Just not near enough for it to matter. The Bangladesh factory fire, described in the video, was so similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist incident. Except this time, I feel there should have been even more cause for protest because there is actual footage. There are videos of workers jumping from windows in a last act of desperation, of reaching out for help even though they knew they were trapped and there was no hope of survival. And if watching that does not make you feel anything, you need to reevaluate yourself.
I don’t remember seeing footage of this a few years back when it occurred. I don’t remember a call for change. I don’t remember it affecting my life in any way. So if there was coverage, it was minimal. And while a U.S. factory fire sparked a flame in our country to fight for basic workers’ rights, the ashes of the same fire in Bangladesh were easily brushed under the rug and forgotten about.
How does this make any sense? What is the difference in their lives versus that of our own neighbors and friends? It’s the distance. It’s the convenience and price of the products that are produced from these slavery-like conditions. It’s the fact that we don’t feel connected to these foreigners in any way, so why bother helping. But these people – the 29 workers whose lives were taken due to the terrible conditions they were forced to work in – they are someone’s neighbors. And if their families and friends can’t speak out against these conditions, at the risk of being beaten or shot at or sprayed down with a water cannon, then who will?
Maybe it should be those who are benefiting. Maybe it should be you, who pays plenty of attention to the price tag and completely ignores international news. Maybe it should be me, who bought a 12 dollar pair of slippers from Walmart last Thursday, when the person who made them spent 15 hours in a dark room with no breaks, walking away with a dollar for their time and effort.
I cannot even tell you the guilt I feel now, wearing anything with a “made in” tag from China, or Haiti, or Vietnam, which is everything I own. Some of these places I’m sure have figured out a way to treat their workers fairly. But I don’t know which shirts were made in those factories, and which shirts were made in factories where 14 year olds waste away their childhoods.
It is so important to make it clear to companies that this is something we as consumers care about. Maybe as sales decrease and dissatisfaction rise, companies will finally understand that we don’t just want cheap, because if human lives are being lost then any cost is too high.
When you want to make a purchase, do your research. Buy from a company without a sketchy history of human rights violations in other countries (like Gap and Walmart). You are taking a side with every purchase, and do you really want to be on the side of child labor? Of poor (or no) wages? Or sexual harassment that goes unaddressed? Of unsafe working conditions? Of inhumane treatment? Whether you want to or not, that is the side you’re choosing when you purchase without considering the origin of your product. So just think about that.