Search This Blog

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The dark side of cheap labor and production facilities in the South-East Asian manufacturing industry

Today, there was confronting news for all western companies that purchase low-priced textiles, garments and footwear in South-Asia and mainly watch the financial bottom line during their ponderings on the ethics of doing business in the low wage-countries.

Today, in a horrific coincidence, there were deadly factory fires in the two biggest cities in Pakistan: a garment factory in Karachi and a shoe factory in Lahore burnt to the ground, claiming the lives of respectively 289 and 25 people until now. The final death toll might be far worse, as not all victims are salvaged yet.

Although the cause for the fire in the garment factory in Karachi is not clear yet, the true reason for the gruesome death toll were the terrible and criminally unsafe labor circumstances: emergency exits and one entrance door that had been locked, windows that had metal grilles, sprinkler installations and smoke detectors that did not work or were not present at all. People were trapped like rats and were smothered to death by the smoke and sometimes even burnt beyond recognition.

The fire in Lahore was probably caused by a technical malfunction of a generator, but also here the extremely high death toll seemed to be caused by the unsafe labor circumstances.

Here are the pertinent snips from the story as written by Associated Press for the Chicago Sun-Times

The death toll from a pair of devastating factory fires that broke out in Pakistan’s two biggest cities rose on Wednesday to 314 people, many of whom perished because they were unable to escape buildings that lacked emergency exits and basic safety equipment such as alarms and sprinklers.

The horrific toll highlights the atrocious state of industrial safety in Pakistan, where many factories are set up illegally in the country’s densely populated cities, and owners often pay officials bribes to ignore safety violations.

The more deadly of the two blazes, which both erupted on Tuesday night, was at a garment factory in the southern city of Karachi, the country’s economic heart.

The death toll there rose to 289 people Wednesday, as firefighters battled the flames for hours, said senior government official Roshan Ali Sheikh. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in Pakistan’s 65-year history, and Sheikh said the death toll could rise because rescue workers were still pulling bodies out from the site in Karachi.

Most of the deaths were caused by suffocation as people caught in the basement were unable to escape when it filled with smoke, said the top firefighter in Karachi, Ehtisham-ud-Din. There were no fire exits, and at least one of the main doors leading out was locked, he said. It’s unclear what caused the fire.

Workers on higher floors of the five-story building struggled to make it out of windows that were covered with metal bars. Many were injured when they jumped from the building, including a 27-year-old pregnant woman who was injured in the fall.

“There were no safety measures taken in the building design. There was no emergency exit. All the people got trapped,” said senior police official Amjad Farooqi.

The factory’s managers have fled and are being sought by police, said Sheikh, the senior government official in Karachi. Authorities have placed the name of the factory’s owner on a list of people who are not allowed to leave the country, said Sheikh.

A fire also swept through a four-story shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore on Tuesday night, killing 25 people, some from burns and some from suffocation, said senior police officer Multan Khan. The factory was illegally set up in a residential part of the city.

It broke out when people in the building were trying to start their generator after the electricity went out. Sparks from the generator made contact with chemicals used to make the shoes, igniting the blaze. Pakistan faces widespread blackouts, and many people use generators to provide electricity for their houses or to run businesses.

One of the workers, Muhammad Shabbir, said he had been working at the factory for six months along with his cousin. He said all the chemicals and the generator were located in the garage, which was also the only way out of the building. When the fire ignited, there was no way to escape.

There are a number remarks that I want to make concerning this shocking and saddening story:

a.    I don’t have any clues (yet) that western companies did business with these particular companies. This means that I cannot state that western companies could have had influence on the labor circumstances in these two factories;

b.    At one hand I consider it quite distasteful to write a moralistic story over the heads of the grieving families in Pakistan, who lost their loved ones or still have to live in uncertainty, unaware of their relatives’ fate;

c.    On the other hand: unfortunately, the events in Pakistan are not particularly new. In the past we heard more horror stories from China, India, Vietnam and almost all other low-wage countries. We know these events happen and we know that there is definitely a positive correlation between the low prices of their products at one hand and the lacking safety and  bad and unhealthy labor circumstances at the other;

d.    We know that people in these factories and sweat shops in the low wage-countries often have been treated like cattle, or to state it more modern: like simple, replaceable means of production that have no additional value for the company than the value of their (manual) labor;

e.   We know that some of the most famous, rich and respected multinationals, like Apple, Nike, Adidas and C&A know these circumstances too. Although all of these companies pay lip-service to improvement of labor circumstances in the low-wage countries and some of these companies are even going through the motions for improving these circumstances, in the end the financial bottom line seems to win… too often;

f.     One thing is certain: consumers should not decide with their mouths, concerning brands and companies that do business with factories and sweatshops in low wage countries where the most basic safety and labor rules are neglected, but with their feet and mousehand;

May your feet and your mousehand decide wisely in the near future.

No comments:

Post a Comment