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Consumerism's deadly international reach

POSTED AT 07:17 PM ON Sep. 19, 2012  (UPDATED AT 07:25 PM ON Sep. 19, 2012)

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Tucked deep within the folds of the New York Times was a story that was harder to stomach than it was to find.

In Karachi, Pakistan, at least 289 people, including one boy as young as 10, were killed when a boiler exploded and caused a fire in the garment factory in which they worked.

According to the Times, the factory’s managers had to choose between unlocking doors to save more workers or evacuating piles of stone-washed jeans headed for European stores.

They chose the jeans.

It really should come as no surprise that such a horrendous act received such lackluster press in the United States.

Notwithstanding the fact that this country had just lost its first ambassador to violence abroad in more than twenty years, American consumerism has never had much room for the living conditions of those who make it possible.

As an IU economics professor once eloquently stated in class, “The average gross domestic product per capita on this planet is about the same as Mexico’s. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like the idea of living like the average Mexican.”

In other words, if somebody is going to live well, somebody else has got to lose out.

And ignorance is bliss. Cheap jeans don’t fit quite as well when the pockets are stuffed with the stories of overworked, maltreated Pakistanis.

Pakistan, however, has relatively strong laws in defense of laborers.

Work weeks cannot be longer than 48 hours unless the occupation is seasonal, women receive both six weeks pre- and postnatal paid leave, and the right to unionize is entrenched in the Pakistani Constitution.

Pakistan also has numerous occupational health and safety regulations.

But, in what has become a disturbingly common trend in the developing world, enforcement of these laws and regulations is extremely underwhelming.

Fire extinguishers in the garment factory were missing or disabled and signs gave directions to emergency exits that turned out to be locked.

One Pakistani labor activist insinuated that state inspectors were receiving money under the table when he said, “They have lifestyles that go beyond their wages.”

Pakistani laborers are also frequently forced to lie to state inspectors or risk losing their jobs.

In 1911, an eerily similar incident occurred.

Almost 150 workers perished in a fire because managers had locked the doors leading to the stairwells to prevent unauthorized breaks. Like those in Karachi, many of these workers jumped from ninth and 10th story windows to escape the flames.

That fire took place at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City.

In the aftermath, a public outcry led to sweeping legislation in this country that created stringent factory safety standards.

International trade does not provide for the same transmittance of domestic public opinion that was possible after the factory fire in 1911.

That is no excuse to continue the hypocritical attitude of protecting laborers at home while profiting from their exploitation abroad.

 

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