On November 24 more than one hundred people were burned alive in the Tazreen garment factory fire in Bangladesh. This was not a tragedy but a crime. The factory did not meet safety standards, and there are reports that managers ordered workers to return to work when alarms were first heard so as not to lose money. It is known that the factory was producing clothing for Walmart and that Walmart had shortly before blocked a move to improve safety in Bangladeshi factories on the grounds of cost. Meanwhile the factory owners have offered compensation to the families of the killed workers at $1,230. Bangladeshi workers have responded with rallies and demands for improvements in safety and compensation in the industry.
Those responsible will of course deny that this is a crime. The factory owners have invoked the strictures of global competition and a lack of state support to justify their inability to maintain a safe workplace. Walmart has distanced itself from the factory, which was merely an outlier with poor management. They claim that a supplier was sending work there against the company’s directions, despite the fact that Walmart’s extensive knowledge, coordination, and influence over its global supply system is well known.
These positions are united in claiming that the fire was a tragedy after all, the result of personal irresponsibility or ‘bad apple’ factory owners who don’t live up to otherwise high standards for production. In doing so, they deny or obscure the fact that the global production system is just that, a unified system that has already embraced all workers and consumers into a semi-rational whole designed to create growth. It seems obvious that this is so, that for hundreds of years the fortunes of workers have been tied to the fluctuations of global markets whose effects national governments could only moderate but could never control. But it is also true that this global system embraces not just the factories operating within legal requirements but all of the various ways in which labor is sweated and money is turned into profit rather than investments in safety. It is a system that in the course of its normal functioning courts the mass death of workers and assigns a dollar figure to their lives.
So how has the movement against Walmart in the US reacted to the factory fire in Bangladesh? This question has a profound importance not only for the direction of labor struggles across the globe, but also our collective capacity to establish standards of acceptable ways for humans to live and work. The situation is ambiguous, with both progressive and regressive possibilities.
Seemingly loose coalitions came together around actions to “Block the Boat”--actions meant to prevent clothing made in the Tazreen factory from being unloaded in US ports. The protests drew together participants from diverse affiliations including Occupy groups, college anti-sweatshop activists, and organized labor. Notably, the members of the International Longshoreman’s Association 1422 staged a work stoppage for almost two hours as part of the protest in a Charleston port, refusing to unload cargo from the ship in question and calling for Walmart to respect its workers' human rights.
In one respect it is encouraging that attention has been paid to this fire at all, but this can only be said in light of widespread apathy towards the lives of foreigners. While violence within the borders of the US monopolizes the news cycle, horrible disasters abroad are able to command relatively little attention. This apathy is a complex issue that touches on many diverse problems such as the use of drones and the international drug war. But in this context of commodity production and distribution, an adequate way to address this problem must reckon with a global machine that incorporates all workers into one system, but reinscribes their inequality in shockingly divergent rates of compensation, working conditions, and labor processes.
The port blockage action, while not hugely influential on its own terms, indicates the potential of a coalition of different groups that might come together internationally around issues that bear not just narrowly on labor but on a struggle against dehumanization. While there seems to be little well developed international cooperation between activists at the moment, the potential for a revival of such cooperation seems ripe given the unprecedentedly integrated nature of current global capitalist production and the present social crisis’s disregard for national boundaries. Actions that underline the equality of all workers as humans may serve as a powerful counter to the notion that human lives can be valued in relation to their productivity, earnings, or place in the system of production.
But not all indications from these port actions were positive. There is reason to believe that deeply reactionary attitudes may be at play as well. This post on Daily Kos, touting the slogan "Don't Wear Death," written to advertise the action in Charleston, shows the potential to turn this factory fire to the service of a supposedly progressive nationalistic ideology. By some twist of logic, the author seems to claim that it was the clothing itself that caused the death of the workers. “Walmart should at least be required to tag this clothing so customers can make a deliberate decision to wear the clothing which caused 128 people to be burned alive.” Furthermore, he claims that the clothing is an insult to the progressive city of Charleston and a reminder of all the jobs that have been offshored to places, we presume, like Bangladesh.
For the author the suffering of these workers has become concentrated and made solid in the clothing that they produced, so contact with it must be avoided. This focus on the purity of certain ‘progressive’ spaces, unpolluted by the fruits of sweatshop labor, leads to a politics of protectionism in which unethically produced goods must be turned away. Failing this, US consumers as individuals should have the opportunity to make a moral choice to remain uncontaminated by the tainted clothing.
These attitudes are noteworthy because they serve the same end as the denials of responsibility by the factory owners and Walmart itself, which is to obscure the fact that we are all already implicated in the conditions of the global system of production, and that protectionism, consumer choice, or a focus on private or governmental corruption can do nothing to undo this reality. While it’s true that production may happen under more or less adverse, even horrific, circumstances, all of these levels coexist and constitute one single system, serving different purposes within it.
The ideas expressed in the Daily Kos post might not be worth focusing on if it weren’t for the proliferation of such messages, particularly those criticizing Walmart for its use of overseas workers and subcontractors. It’s also interesting to note the way that the physical commodities themselves become such a focus of the writer’s disgust. This focus on commodities implies that purchasing ‘ethically’ made goods is a progressive act. But it ignores the fact that the production of any commodity is one moment of an ongoing struggle between workers and capital. In this sense, the goods themselves become a distraction from what we ought to pay attention to.
What should be highlighted here is the struggle that has the potential to unite Bangladeshi and US workers and activists. Recent actions against Walmart have struck not only in retail locations but more importantly in its supply chain. These actions have forced a limited recognition that Walmart is indeed responsible for the conditions of workers at these companies. What may be even more important is how these actions have revealed the potential for coordinated international actions by workers and allies inherent in Walmart’s structure.
Walmart’s workers find themselves at the mercy of a vast and powerful multi-national that is known for its ability to dictate terms to its suppliers and contractors, to move its sites of production across borders, and for its hitherto imperviousness to the organization of employees, at least in the US. This situation presents us with two possibilities. Much energy on the left is devoted to the first of these, which is the futile attempt to enclose the movement of capital within particular territories, where it can be managed and purified. The alternative is to abandon the illusory promises of bounded space in favor of a more inclusive struggle that crosses borders and reinvents the left as a force that is just as global as capital. One is a regression, the other a promising if risky way forward.