The Wonderful World of Color (or 50 Shades of Grey)

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n the Saturday after America celebrated Thanksgiving, a day after Black Friday, “at least” 112 garment workers died in a fire that swept through a garment factory in Bangladesh.  Workers were unable to leave the factory because the doors were padlocked, blocking easy escape.  News reports solemnly intoned the link between the factory and “major” retailers.  Walmart and Disney rapidly geared up their PR machines to disassociate themselves from the factory, stating they had not had contracts with “that particular factory” for over a year.  The voice of Mission Impossible’s “Assignment Man” echoed in my mind – “…be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions”.  Very convenient.

“Bangladesh’s garment industry employs 4 million people, 3 million of them women, at some 4,500 factories, says Siddiqur Rahman, a vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).  And between 1990 and 2012, there have been at least 33 major fires in garment factories, claiming some 500 lives, according to BILS.”[1]  Less than a week later, there was a fire in another factory, without loss of life this time, thankfully.

At some point in all the reporting, it was noted the wages these people make are equivalent to about $.55 an hour (that’s 55 cents) in U.S. dollars.  When one considers the brand name “labels” involved on the retail end (Disney, IKEA, Walmart and Carrefour were four mentioned) it would be interesting to see a breakdown of other costs going in to say, a $32 long-sleeve tee-shirt for adults from Disneyworld.[2]  From my experience, it takes about 3 yards of fabric, a spool of thread and 8 hours to make a T-shirt, including “life” interruptions, when you are only one person.  Paying full-pop for the fabric, maybe $6 a yard, it winds up costing an individual upwards of $20 to sew a T-shirt “from scratch”.

A perusal of the popular wholesale site “Alibaba” online demonstrates the availability of Chinese made (sigh – no American made) 100% cotton jersey knit fabric in various weights offered anywhere from $.60 to $7.50 U.S. a “piece” or “kilogram”.  It is sold variously by weight, length, or type of fabric, so it is impossible to compare this to the retail fabric sold on the consumer market.  Thus ends the attempt to determine base cost of a “Mickey Mouse” (literally) long-sleeved tee-shirt from the Happiest Place on Earth.  Rats, foiled again.

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According to Wikipedia, “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York.  The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was Providenza Panno at 43, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone, and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese.

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.”

That was 101 years ago.  Labor unions were a good thing for many years and many reasons – better working conditions, wages, benefits and improved long-term life outlooks for workers in many different industries.  Unfortunately, the economic spiral turns continuously.  Profit margins and stock holders are ruthless and voracious.  For every increase in wages, there is an accompanying increase in retail prices.  Every attempt by the individual to “get ahead” is countered with inflation, increased interest rates or energy prices.  “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” has become a very real concern, as opposed to a sarcastic remark.  These days it seems union officials are more concerned with keeping their own jobs than they are with improving the conditions, wages, benefits and long-term outlook of union members.

Perhaps it is time for unions to migrate overseas to these underdeveloped nations, where there is a true and genuine need for labor reform.  If they kick up as much of a fuss globally as they did during the late 19th and early 20th centuries here in the U.S. of A., global wage equalization may accomplish what nothing else has to date – bringing jobs back to America as retail prices go even higher in response to a global equalization of markets.  Or, here’s a thought – maybe all those “uber-rich” (I really dislike that term) manufacturing moguls with their obscene profits can sharpen their pencils and keep a little less money for themselves.  On the bright side, they won’t have to pay so much in taxes that way.  Sure, like that will happen.  Just about as likely as the average American not shopping at Walmart or IKEA or looking for low, low prices…


[1] article in Christian Science Monitor, 26 November 2012

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