The Pro-Life Factory
In 1993 the worst industrial fire in the history of capitalism occurred at a mammoth toy factory outside Bangkok--188 workers killed, 469 seriously injured. All but a handful were women, some as young as 13. They were assembling toys for American children--Sesame Street dolls, Bart Simpson and the Muppets, Playskool "Water Pets" and many other popular items.
The most macabre fact about this historic tragedy was that hardly anyone in America noticed, though the Kader Industrial Toy Company's production supplied famous US brands like Fisher-Price, Hasbro, Tyco and Kenner, and retailers like Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us. Indeed, the Thai death toll surpassed the most scandalous calamity in America's own industrial history--the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911--and resembled it in haunting detail. Fire exits were blocked or inadequate, doors were locked to prevent pilfering, flammable materials were stacked randomly on the shop floors. Not even the most rudimentary fire precautions were provided for this factory with 3,000 workers. Desperate women jumped from upper-story windows by the score, just as young American women had done eighty-two years before in New York City.
Nor was this event unique in industrializing Asia. In 1994 ninety-three were killed and 160 injured in a Zhuhai textile factory when a fire led to the collapse of the building. In 1993 eighty-seven women died in the Zhili toy factory fire in Shenzhen, China. At Dongguan, a raincoat factory burned in 1991 and killed seventy-two people. Also in 1993, a textile plant fire killed sixty-one women in Fuzhou province. "Why must these tragedies repeat themselves again and again?" the People's Daily in Beijing asked. China's Economic Daily blamed "the way some of these foreign investors ignore international practice, ignore our own national rules, act completely lawlessly and immorally and lust after wealth."
The factory fires continue to this day in Asia, though they haven't been quite as horrendous. These routine human tragedies provoke local protests and official investigations but somehow escape the attention of the US media. One obvious cause of the fires is the so-called three-in-one factory design--peasant workers sleep in a dormitory on the top floor, with the factory and warehouse beneath them. When a fire starts, the women are trapped, often suffocated by noxious fumes. This arrangement is officially illegal in China but still widely used.
Last June the Zhimao Electronics plant fire at Shenzhen left twenty-four dead and forty injured; the China Labor Bulletin described it as "a copycat of at least six similar fires in south China." Nineteen people, including five children, died in a furniture factory fire last spring at Nanyang. In August the largest apparel factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh's industrial zone burned to the ground on a Sunday night in August (evidently without casualties). Firefighters reported the absence of any fire-safety system. In October factory fires in Guangzhou's Baiyun district and Zengcheng's Shitan county killed thirty-one women, according to the South China Morning Post. A year ago, five workers were killed and twenty-three injured at a toy factory in Shenzhen when two of the dorm's balconies collapsed.
We begin with this mundane subject because there is absolutely no mystery about how to build and operate a safe industrial factory protected against this ancient hazard. It costs a bit more, that's all. What's missing in the global system is the political will to punish those who are scoring easy profits by ignoring such long-established industrial standards.
Congress can start here. It should enact a law that prohibits entry for any goods made in a factory that is not independently certified as employing standard fire-prevention design and equipment. The target is not mom-and-pop sweatshops operating in back alleys but the vast industrial plants producing for major global companies. They can afford to do this. Because the safety issue is so clear-cut and the human losses so dramatic, the law should permit zero tolerance for firms that ignore prudent precautions.
Does that sound too burdensome for business or too intrusive on foreign sovereignty? Consider this: The Federal Aviation Administration routinely performs similar safety tasks for aircraft, both at home and abroad. The FAA inspects production of foreign-made components that go into Boeing airplanes, certifies the airworthiness of foreign-made airliners and examines the work done offshore at overseas repair centers. Would you fly on a jetliner that was not certified by the FAA?
In fact, there are numerous other matters in which the US and other governments demand the right to inspect foreign production or the content and origins of imported goods before trade is permitted. If America has the power to protect US patents and copyrights by investigating knockoff CD factories in Southeast Asia, it is surely capable of protecting the lives of low-wage workers who make the toys, shirts, shoes and electronics we buy. If other nations don't wish to accept those terms, we can buy shirts and shoes somewhere else.
This issue, simple as it sounds, goes right to the heart of how globalization is organized because it challenges the irresponsibility of the "virtual corporation," that model of efficiency widely praised by management experts. "Virtual" firms operate like the central brain of a nervous system, connected to far-flung networks of suppliers and capable of shifting contracts regularly from one subcontractor to another, with no fixed accountability. One can blame the foreign-owned suppliers who scrimp on fire safety or blame local governments that do not enforce their own laws. But the moral culpability ultimately resides with the multinationals that run this arrangement (and, by extension, with the people who buy their products).
Subcontractors cut corners recklessly because they are compelled to compete on price for the next contract--a continuing cost-cutting contest that drives standards downward and ensnares poor nations as a whole. If Thailand enforces its laws too vigorously, the factories pick up and move somewhere else--Vietnam or China or Bangladesh--where workers are even cheaper and officials more compliant. This flexible system describes the treadmill that frustrates progress in poorer economies. Pioneered in low-end sectors (apparel, toys), it is increasingly evident in high-end production (autos, aircraft, advanced electronics).
Simple morality requires that we throw a little sand in the treadmill. Elementary rules, set in law, would reverse the incentives for corporate managers. Otherwise, as price-conscious consumers, we are all responsible for what happens to those young people.