Spartacist Canada No. 177
Capitalist Profit Drive Kills
For close to four weeks the world watched as the bodies of garment workers were pulled from the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh. On April 24, the structure collapsed on more than 3,000 workers toiling in five sweatshops. Mostly young women, they had resisted going to work after walls in the building began to show cracks the previous day. “Management forced us to go up and said there was no problem with the building,” recounted one survivor. “Just after that, I sat at my table to work, and the building just collapsed” (Democracy Now!, 25 April).
Despite heroic efforts by firefighters and other rescue personnel to find survivors, the total number of dead is now believed to be 1,127. This toll makes the Rana Plaza disaster the worst in the history of clothing manufacture and the most deadly industrial disaster since the leak of poisonous gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984, which killed at least 20,000 and left 600,000 permanently injured or sick.
Mass protests erupted as news of the disaster spread, with hundreds of thousands of outraged workers walking out of plants in and around the capital city, Dhaka. Highways were blockaded and two factories whose bosses refused to shut down production were set ablaze. Protesters marched on the headquarters of the garment manufacturers association, chanting: “We want execution of the garment factory owners!” When police firing rubber bullets and tear gas could not quell the crowds, the industry announced on April 26 that all factories would be shut for the upcoming weekend. The Rana Plaza building owner was subsequently arrested trying to flee across the border into India.
The giant retailers who subcontract production to the Savar sweatshops—e.g., the American J.C. Penney, the French retailer Carrefour, the British Primark and the Canadian Loblaw’s Joe Fresh—expressed “shock” about the collapse and denied any complicity. But the depraved indifference exhibited by the capitalist magnates to the lives of those they exploit plumbs new depths when it comes to the semicolonial world, where the U.S. and other imperialist powers have imposed the most wretched conditions. The 5,000 factories in Bangladesh that produce garments for major North American and European brands are a cornerstone of the country’s economy. The millions of workers toiling in near-slavery in these deathtraps are paid the lowest wages in the world for that industry—as low as $37 a month, far below subsistence, even after working 15-hour shifts.
The long trail of capitalist industrial murder in Bangladesh includes an earlier building collapse in Savar that left 73 workers dead and a fire at Tazreen Fashions in nearby Ashulia last November that took more than 100 lives. At Tazreen, a source for Wal-Mart and Sears, managers blocked the stairs to keep workers at their sewing machines even as flames spread on floors below. On May 8, a fire in a Dhaka garment factory killed eight.
Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston hypocritically declared himself “deeply shaken by the event” even as his company announced a huge 40 percent rise in profits for the first quarter of 2013. Any compensation doled out to the survivors in Bangladesh is simply pocket change for this enormously wealthy corporation. Meanwhile at home, Loblaw has been savaging its own workforce, driving down wages and working conditions and relentlessly attacking the unions in the name of still greater profits.
The truth of the matter is that the multinational corporations are calling the shots and are well aware of what it takes to produce clothing at the prices they contract for, aiming to squeeze out the maximum profit. If orders go unfilled, they pick up stakes and move elsewhere. The local bosses are simply the whip hands, lining their own pockets in the process.
To facilitate their many crimes, the garment bosses, aided by the government in Dhaka, brutally suppress unions, the only effective safeguard workers have against the rapaciousness of the capitalist profiteers. Trade unionists are banned from organizing in the factories and are frequent targets of arrest, torture and killing. A key organizer of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, Aminul Islam, was murdered a year ago. As a result, labour unions are almost nonexistent in the garment plants; none of the Rana Plaza factories was unionized. Nevertheless, a number of strikes have swept the industry in recent years (see “Women Garment Workers Fight Starvation Wages,” Workers Vanguard No. 974, 18 February 2011). Now, in a purely face-saving move, the Bangladesh government has announced that workers no longer need to ask for permission (!) to organize unions in their workplaces.
Organize the Unorganized!
The industrial murder at Rana Plaza is a searing indictment of the daily workings of capitalist-imperialism. The situation cries out for union organizing drives—backed in action by the labour movement internationally—demanding decent wages and working conditions. These sweatshops are the first links in a “just-in-time” global cargo chain extending all the way to the retail stores in the imperialist countries, with key choke points at the ports and in the warehouses. Coordinated solidarity action could go a long way toward advancing the cause of labour in the semicolonial world and imperialist centres alike.
The bosses have always rolled the dice with workers’ lives, writing off the human toll as just another cost of doing business. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, mainly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women who could not escape because the bosses had locked the doors to the stairwells to prevent unauthorized breaks (not unlike at Tazreen a century later). The atrocity galvanized the labour movement in the city and spurred the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Today as well, such industrial carnage should be a clarion call to organize the unorganized.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on the planet and wages and working conditions there are much, much worse than in the advanced industrial world. But everywhere, including in the imperialist countries of Europe, North America and Asia, the capitalist principle of production for profit means deaths, maiming and sickness for workers.
A week before the Bangladesh catastrophe, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas on April 17. “There was this huge wall of black smoke and people were coming out of it,” said one survivor, “it reminded me so much of 9/11.” At least 14 people were killed, mainly firefighters who were battling a blaze at the plant when an enormous cache of ammonium nitrate is reported to have blown up. The blast, which measured 2.1 on the Richter scale and dug a crater ten feet deep and 93 feet wide, injured over 200 people and damaged buildings in a five-block radius.
Like Rana Plaza, this disaster was no accident but rather a testament to the murderous workings of the capitalist profit system, in which the bottom line trumps safety. West Fertilizer had been operating for years in flagrant violation of accepted safety standards. Cutting corners to save money is the name of the game for capitalist enterprise, and tragedy all too often follows. Texas, a “right to work” state with one of the lowest unionization rates in the U.S., had more fatal workplace accidents in 2011 than any other state.
Canadian Capitalism and Industrial Murder
In Canada, it is the same story of profit-driven injury, illness and death. The social-democratic mythology that Canada treats workers better than the U.S. is manifestly false. Some 1,000 workers are killed on the job each year, almost double the U.S. rate. As of 2003, Canada had the fifth highest rate of workplace fatalities out of 29 OECD countries. One million people are injured at work annually and thousands more suffer occupational illnesses.
From its early days, the Canadian capitalist class has been marked by a supreme indifference to the lives of the workers whose labour it uses up and discards. More than a century ago, at least 600 Chinese labourers died building the Canadian Pacific Railway in B.C.—more than four for every mile of rail. The workers who have died in the mines and the forests for more than 100 years are legion and largely uncounted.
Capitalist disdain for worker safety has driven many strikes and unionization drives. The landmark 1949 Asbestos strike, the first serious political challenge to the labour-hating Union Nationale regime of Maurice Duplessis in Quebec, was sparked partly by reports in Le Devoir that the bosses had been lying to workers about the deadly effects of asbestos dust. (For more on this strike see “Nationalism and Class Struggle in Quebec,” SC No. 120, Spring 1999.) To this day, workers in Quebec are paying the price for the unsafe conditions of the once immensely profitable asbestos mines. Diseases caused by asbestos such as mesothelioma and asbestosis can have a long latency period. Thus, while asbestos mining in Quebec ended in 2011, previous exposure to the fibre still causes as much as 89 percent of workplace illness there. To this day, asbestos is the biggest killer of Québécois workers.
In Pictou County, Nova Scotia in 1992, a massive explosion in the Westray mine killed 26 miners. This was a horrific disaster that has been seared into the memories of many Canadian workers. Only a year old, the non-union mine had been repeatedly written up for serious safety violations. Among them, the critical methane-monitoring equipment was not working. Workers later reported that it was routinely disabled to avoid production shutdowns. “The Westray mine was a deathtrap and everybody involved knew it,” as we wrote in Spartacist Canada:
“The tragedy at Westray has chiseled the brutal reality of capitalist production-for-profit into stark relief. Workers are considered raw material to be used up, their lives worth less than the equipment they operate.”
—“Industrial Murder In Pictou County, N.S.,” SC No. 88 (Summer 1992)
Mexican workers, mostly on temporary work permits, toil in deadly toxic conditions on the farms of southern Ontario. Racism and the drive for profits have meant that these workers earn just a pittance and are at the mercy of the bosses, who can fire or deport them if they step out of line. In Ontario, agricultural workers have long been banned from forming unions. And it’s not only the workers who pay the price for the capitalists’ disregard for basic safety. Today in Sarnia, with its significant petrochemical industry, cancer rates are stratospheric among those who worked in these plants as well as in their families.
The working conditions of Toronto transit workers, who have been under sustained attack by city governments of all political hues, have eroded in recent years and this has been accompanied by deaths and injuries. Six years ago, Tony Almeida, a worker in an asbestos removal crew, was killed in a subway tunnel. Less than a year ago, a foreman working at track level was killed, hit by a subway work car. In 2006, eight workers nearly died in the tunnels from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Capitalist governments at every level give the owners virtually free rein to run their factories and mines as ticking time bombs. Then, when fatalities do occur, the bosses typically express shock and dismay and blame the workers. Now and then a capitalist may do some jail time for stealing from other capitalists, or fudging their books. But not for killing their workers.
The number of workplace fatalities in this country has risen for the past 15 years, just as the unionization rate has declined. Indeed, there is an iron link between worker safety and the fighting capacity of the trade unions. The only real measure of protection workers have against their cutthroat exploiters is strong unions with safety committees that can shut down dangerous operations on the spot. Such actions mean defying the capitalists’ laws and often the armed might of their state, which are invariably brought down on the heads of workers, but virtually never on the capitalist bosses whose mines and factories maim and kill.
But the unions are on the defensive, ground down by defeats and saddled with leaderships—in this country mostly loyal to the NDP social democrats—that abhor the kind of struggle that is necessary to defend workers and their lives and livelihoods. Instead of the kind of hard struggle required to organize unions, the class-collaborationist labour leaders rely on the good graces of the capitalist government as they make their impotent pleas for better workplace regulation.
The capitalist rulers will try to do everything they can to increase profit margins, from busting unions and intensifying the exploitation of workers at home to exporting capital to countries where labour costs are cheaper. Against the chauvinist union tops and their “Canada first” protectionism, we reiterate the call raised by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848): “Working men of all countries, unite!” It is through a series of proletarian revolutions that the working people of the planet can seize the bourgeois rulers’ capital and build an internationally planned economy, lifting the masses of the semicolonial world from their miserable poverty and paving the way to a future of plenty for all.
—Based in part on an article in Workers Vanguard
No. 1023 (3 May), newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S.