A year ago, a fire in a Bangladesh factory killed 30 workers. The factory made clothes for American companies JC Penny, Abercrombie, and Gap (1). Most of the workers died jumping from the 10th floor, or trying to climb down the fire escapes. An electrical short circuit probably caused the fire. This is a common occurrence in Bangladeshi factories, which use sub-standard wiring, and often have inadequate fire escapes. 500 workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh in the last five years. Some workers who survived the recent fire complained to the AFP news agency that their fire exits were locked (2).
The fire, and many others, could have been prevented—lives could have been saved—if the factory had seriously implemented the required safety measures. No doubt they considered it too expensive to keep the building up to code, and would rather risk the workers’ lives than eat into their profits. No doubt they were also under pressure from the American firms buying their products to keep the prices low. After all workers, like machines, can be replaced, but lost profits are lost forever. At some point, the decision was consciously made to ignore safety regulations, just one of the innumerable decisions made all over the world every day which place profits over people, lives over loss. In capitalist cost-benefit analysis, individual labourers are expendable, as long as there are more to take their place. And under the coercive conditions capitalism imposes on every aspect of our lives, there are always more people willing to work for however little money: if not here, then somewhere else around the world.
2011 was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in Manhattan which killed 146 women, many of them young Italian and Jewish immigrants. The workers died jumping from the top stories of the building, or falling when a flimsy fire escape collapsed. Those trying to escape down the stairs found the door locked. In New York this year the tragedy was solemnly commemorated by a coalition of labour organizers, historic preservation societies, and local artists who held a procession through Greenwich village carrying shirtwaists, and banners with the names of the women who died (3).
But who will commemorate this recent tragedy? It will be up to the families of the workers. The Bangladeshi factory fire was largely ignored by American mainstream media, as are countless other instances of death, illness and severe exploitation in Third World factories which supply American companies. This month, 284 people fainted in a Cambodian H&M factory, due to noxious fumes emitting from the clothes they were constructing. Another 300 workers at an H&M factory 100 miles away fell ill in July (4). This phenomenon has been reported by NGOs who estimate 1,000 fainting have occurred this year among garment workers . A local police chief blames the recent faintings on the “weak health” of the workers, most likely caused by malnutrition, and long shifts handling toxic chemicals in poorly ventilated rooms (5). For Third World labourers, danger and illness are all in a day’s work.
Today, in the centers of consumption, we think these tragedies are things of the past. We have labour laws now, and safety regulations, fire codes, sprinklers and disaster training. Deaths are the result of individual carelessness, not systematic neglect. Regrettable accidents, not corporate policies, are to blame for any lives lost on the job. We assume that in this enlightened era of free-market competition, companies willingly follow the laws and take necessary precautions to ensure workers’ safety: the market acts as a force of reason, regulating itself with the help of state legislation. Factories have to keep up to code in order to be competitive employers: who would want to work for a firm that didn’t care about its workers? The assumption that labour is on an equal footing with capital, that workers have the agency to decide who they sell their labour to, is a myth perpetuated by the capitalist class: neo-liberal economic policy and political propaganda use liberal notions of individual freedom and social equality to obscure the very real race, gender and class differences dividing people. We may have equal rights according to the constitution, but as Marx reminds us, “between equal rights, force decides” (6) Neo-liberalism champions micro-credit programs as a solution to poverty, corporate bailouts to stimulate economic recovery, and privatization to improve health-care and social services. We have seen the effects of these policies over the last thirty years, since their introduction by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s: the rural poor burdened by mounting debt (7), massive profits for banks and unemployment for the masses, and drastic reductions of medical coverage and welfare benefits (8).
Despite agreeing to negotiate compensation for the injured workers and the families of the deceased, and to implement rigorous fire safety standards, JC Penny, one of the seven companies supplied by the factory, has dropped out of the negotiations. Whether or not the people affected by this tragedy will be compensated remains to be seen, though certainly no amount of money can make up for a permanent injury, or the loss of a loved one. Yet money is the best thing they can hope for from these negotiations: capital regards with human life in no other terms.
Even when progressive people acknowledge the horrors of sweat shop labour—our cheap goods come at a human cost!—the issue is taken to be a Third World problem, caused by corrupt local governments and sleazy factory owners cutting corners. Working conditions in sweat shops are likened to those prevailing a hundred years ago during the dark ages of Europe and America’s Industrial Revolution, further reinforcing the colonial construct of the West as the center of Progress, which the rest of the world is still catching up to. Well meaning organizations may decry the deplorable conditions in Third World factories, and urge consumers to consider the ethical implications of the things they buy. But rarely do they extend their analysis to an anti-capitalist conclusion. We might be called upon to boycott Nike, but not to recognize the coercive force of US economic imperialism, or to challenge the inherently immoral system of capitalists extorting surplus value from exploited labour. Better regulations or consumer boycotts will not improve workers’ conditions in a global economy operating on free-market competition, aimed at generating enormous wealth for a tiny number of individuals, at the expense of every one else. As David Harvey says, “capital circles the globe looking for the most profitable locations. ” Countries like China, India, Cambodia, and Taiwan attract foreign investment by offering large reserves of cheap labour with minimal state regulation to police profits. Companies that used to manufacture in the US and Europe have moved their operations to developing countries where they can turn a higher profit by exporting cheap goods to Western markets.
Hazardous workplaces and meager wages are not anomalous throw backs to the Industrial Revolution: they are standard conditions for the global proletariat. And these conditions are no accident: they are purposefully perpetuated by international capitalism to ensure cheap production and high profits. Capitalists need to increase their profits by 3% every year just to keep up with the competition and remain in business, and they achieve this by cutting the costs of production to the bare minimum, paying workers low wages for long hours, and skimping on safety measures. Death and illness on the job are endemic to capitalism’s systematic lack of ethics. As long as there are more workers to fill the fields and factories, capitalists do not care how many are crushed in the path of their relentless pursuit of profit.
What we need are not more laws for capitalists to ignore, standards for them to squirm around, or regulatory agencies for them to bribe. State governments have been falling in step with capital since the before the Industrial Revolution, facilitating massive accumulation and profit through land seizures, the privatization of natural resources, police and military control of the population, bureaucracy, corporate-sponsored politicians, bank bail-outs, slashed social services, and laws which punish poor people, immigrants, women, workers, and people of colour (9). No boycotts or NGOs or online-petitions are going to stop the insatiable lust for profit, the vampire of capital which drains the blood of labour to keep on living (10).
We need a mass movement of working people to forcefully seize the means of production, an organized revolutionary force to wage war against the ruling class. We need violent action, not peaceful reform; international solidarity, not competitive nationalism. From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization, from the New York in 1911 to Bangladesh in 2011, capitalism is the culprit in these crimes. We must destroy the drive-for-profit, private property, the free-market, and the state apparatuses upholding them if we’re to have any hope of an equitable, cooperative society, of production free from exploitation, for the benefit of all people. And we must have this hope if we’re to have any hope at all for the future of humanity, animals and the earth.
6. Marx, Karl. Capital. Page 235. International Publishers, New York: 1977
8. The number of Americans without health insurance has risen from 46.3 million (15.4%) to 50 million (16.7 %) in a year. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-09-17-uninsured17_ST_N.htm
9. For some recent examples of these laws see Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB 1070 passed in collaboration with prison corporations (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130833741), the numerous laws restricting access to abortion which primarily affect low-income women (http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/151504/900_anti-woman_laws_to_appease_conservative_extremists_—_is_abortion_becoming_legal_in_name_only/ ), and laws which require welfare recipients to pass drug tests which purposefully ignore the explicit causal connection between drug use and poverty http://inciteblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/stereotypes-myths-criminalizing-policies-regulating-the-lives-of-poor-women/
10. “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Karl Marx, Capital page 233.