Monday, June 24, 2013

Bangladesh Is The US 100 Years Ago

Workers' compensation had its beginnings in the United States during the Industrial Revolution. This was when the US led the world in manufacturing in nearly everything from clothes to big machines.

We in the workers' compensation industry tend to forget the roots of workers' compensation since systems have changed dramatically from 100 years ago. Economies have changed, several generations have been born and died, several wars have been fought.

Through it all the standards of living in the United States have grown tremendously, affecting our culture, and the perceptions, and expectations, of current generations.

Imagine, then, if you were a teenage seamstress who survived the collapse of a large factory building in which more than 1,100 died, spent 20 days in the hospital recovering from the loss of a foot.

Imagine that, just five weeks from enduring such unbelievable trauma and hellish conditions, returning to that same job because at 16 years old you are the only person in the family capable of an income to support a family.

Imagine that bosses would lock doors to prevent pilfering and enforce work ethic, that workers routinely would be yelled at, or even hit, if a boss didn't feel she was working fast enough.

Imagine that this situation was cultural norm - that you are not the only one facing such hardship and difficulty; where survival is the daily chore.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) this weekend published a story about this 16 year old (actually, the author notes that 16 years is a guess - that it is common in Bangladesh for official documents denoting a person's age to be falsified or trumped, and that even the mother of the subject didn't know her real age) factory worker who survived the Rana Plaza building collapse to return to work, still in pain, with significant disability, because that country does not have the social support system that first world countries do.

The universal truth is that third world countries, like Bangladesh, rely upon the labor of an impoverished working class to build themselves into a better society.

The WSJ notes, for instance, that the growth of the garment industry in Bangladesh has led to a significant drop in the number of people living in poverty in the country and the story of Mahinur Akhter typifies the experience.

Labor intensive industries are usually the first-tier towards third world countries climbing up the income ladder and Thailand and Sri Lanka are held out as examples where the garment industry helped people move up.

"Continued growth in Bangladesh will depend on the efforts of Ms. Akhter and other workers, whose relatively low wages help give Bangladesh an international trading advantage, despite the country's rickety transportation system, power shortages and political instability," the WSJ notes.

Akhter's father died in a motor vehicle accident last year after moving the family to a different city where he was fortunate enough to get a job in a saw mill leaving Akhter, his wife and two young boys to fend for themselves.

Akhter's $90US per month goes mostly to her family. She send most of that money home to pay for the well being of her mother and 6 year old daughter, and to pay for her brother's schooling.

The WSJ chronicles the difficult times and brutal demands placed on garment workers in Bangladesh - there are beatings, sexual harassment, 16 hour days and failure to meet production quotas means termination.

In Bangladesh 80 percent of the garment workers are female, and their ages aren't really known because, despite laws in the country against child labor most are able to forge official documents with the help of officials to get work at an early age.

Yet, despite the conditions, factory workers nonetheless feel fortunate to have a job.

"I wish I could stay here," Akhter is quoted as saying in the WSJ story. "People my age should be in school, not at work. But because my family is poor, I need to have a job."

So, just 5 weeks after the Rana Plaza building collapse and still with haunting memories and nightmares about her experience, Akhter returned to work sewing buttons.

In 1911 there was a disastrous garment factory fire that killed 146 laborers, many of them children as young as 14 years of age.

The managers of the factory had locked the doors to prevent pilfering and unauthorized breaks. Because of this, workers could not escape when fire broke out.

Normally there were about 500 workers at the factory, sewing and producing women's blouses, earning between $7 and $12US per week for 9 hour days plus 7 on Saturdays. Most of the workers were immigrants of Jewish or Italian descent.

Because the doors were locked, and escape routes inadequately erected, people tried to escape the fire on the 9th through 11th floors by jumping.

William Gunn Shepard, a reporter at the scene, is quoted as saying, “I learned a new sound that day a sound more horrible than description can picture the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk."

The Triangle Waist Company fire is largely credited as the progenitor to modern day safety regulations and workers' compensation in the United States. Like Bangladesh now, the production of clothing using cheap labor in forced conditions allowed a generation or two to climb the socio-economic ladder out of poverty, and helped produce a working class of people with sufficient resources to jettison poverty and low-wage work.

The United States in many ways has come a long way since 1911. Low wages are now considered to be $8 an hour. We have OSHA and state safety rules. There are labor unions and minimum wage laws.

And there is workers' compensation.

By many accounts Bangladesh is the United States a hundred years ago. Labor intensive industries helped people in the US move up and then those jobs were exported to other countries which, in turn, also resulted in the migration of workers up the socio-economic ladder.

The old saying, history repeats itself, is evident but also prescient as well. We can "look back" in modern times simply by examining the evolution of mankind in other countries and learn in real time. And likewise, leaders in third world countries can look at history and see how first world countries attained success.

And in it all, both first world and third world can examine workers' compensation at its most elemental state - a system for distributing the financial burden of protecting workers against a large base of employers, to ensure resources are available to provide medical treatment and indemnification to workers facing the misfortune of injury or death.

Officials in Bangladesh will certainly learn from the Rana Plaza disaster just as we in the United States learned from the Triangle Waist Company fire. I might add that we, in the United States, can also learn from the Rana Plaza building collapse.

1 comment:

  1. If we left it up to the editorial board of the WSJ, we'd be right back to where we were in 1911, especially with the Tea Party and a President Willard Mitt Romney.

    What is needed in Bangladesh, is what was needed here a hundred years ago, and is still needed here...a strong labor movement to fight for rights for workers such as workers' comp, unemployment insurance, health insurance, education, higher wages, better working conditions, vacations, etc.

    I doubt many of their readers in the US would approve of a strong labor movement, because the conservative movement's number one goal over the past fifty years has been to weaken and destroy the unions and the labor movement in this country.

    Has the WSJ ever criticized the outsourcing of American jobs? Have they ever exposed the real purpose of the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Bilderburg Group? That purpose is to integrate the world's economy and to do so with as little interference from the masses of people so that corporate profits are maximized while workers rights and benefits are curtailed, and wages depressed.

    We've heard about a race to the bottom. It is more like a race to the middle, as we decline, and the third world rises, albeit to a level neither of us want to be in.