Putting a Face on the Problem: Why We Regulate, Why We Unionize, Why Cheap Labor Isn’t Cheap

I hesistated, at first, to publish this photo here, but if the professional journalists at TIME Magazine think that it’s OK for an unsuspecting audience, well, then it’s probably OK.  I’m betting that many of you won’t have seen it.

Unearthed garment workers at collapsed Bangladeshi factory

“Cheap Labor”: Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter captured this heart-wrenching iconic image of unearthed garment workers at collapsed Bangladeshi factory outside Dhaka.

Please click on the link above for the full original story in TIME.  The photographer, who says that he still has found new clues about who the victims of the collapse of the factory were or whether the relationship between them was anything more than chance proximity as the building buried them alive, writes in part:

I spent the entire day the building collapsed on the scene, watching as injured garment workers were being rescued from the rubble. I remember the frightened eyes of relatives — I was exhausted both mentally and physically. Around 2 a.m., I found a couple embracing each other in the rubble. The lower parts of their bodies were buried under the concrete. The blood from the eyes of the man ran like a tear. When I saw the couple, I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I knew them — they felt very close to me. I looked at who they were in their last moments as they stood together and tried to save each other — to save their beloved lives.

Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable — it haunts me. It’s as if they are saying to me, we are not a number — not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too.

When our corporations send jobs overseas to rickety factories like this, cutting costs and skirting regulations so that they can have much higher profits and we can have slightly cheaper clothes, this carnage is part of the cost.  But that may not be enough for some readers, so let me pick at your enlightened self-interest.

When people overseas see the economic system that we impose on the rest of the world leading to this sort of result, the treatment of “human capital” as disposable — after all, there are plenty of other unemployed Bangladeshis who will take the next factory job like this out of economic desperation — when it would not be so hard to built factories up to (dare I say?) western standards that would not bury these people like this.  They could have building codes — in fact, we could demand it of them.  They could allow their workers to grieve against such things as bad working conditions without reprisal — in fact, we could demand it of them.  But we don’t.

People overseas (and many right here at home) see our society as seeing their citisens as disposable.  They don’t like it.  It makes them less likely to become our friends.  They are more likely than otherwise, in fact, to become our enemies.  If something like this happened despite our best efforts, it would be one thing — but we’re not even in the same galaxy as giving “our best efforts.”  They’re cheap labor — and rather than pressing for change we tend to do what we can to prevent them from rising from “cheap” to merely “inexpensive.”

You can take it seriously, or not.  They take it seriously — and if we care what the rest of the world thinks of us, given that they can side with us or our enemies in the future, so should we.

(And yes, I do recognize that, to a lesser extent, I could be writing about Texas instead of Bangladesh.)

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)