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Mass Industrial Slaughter Is a Legacy of Exploitative Global Manufacturing

The collapse of Rana Plaza not only shone a light on the extreme exploitation of Bangladeshi workers, it also revealed the hidden structure of the global capitalist economy.

The collapsed Rana Plaza building near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 13, 2013. (Photo: Jaber Al Nahian)

What do imperialism and colonialism look like today? John Smith’s Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century argues that core capitalist nations are no longer reliant on military force and direct political control of other countries. Instead, they maintain a financial grip on the Southern Hemisphere in particular, exploiting labor in these countries to increase their own profits. Order this book from Truthout by clicking here!

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.

The collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story building housing several textile factories, a bank, and some shops in an industrial district north of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, on 24th April 2013 killing 1,133 garment workers and wounding 2,500, was one of the worst workplace disasters in recorded history. This disaster, and garment workers’ grief, rage, and demands for justice, stirred feelings of sympathy and solidarity from working people around the world — and a frantic damage-limitation exercise by the giant corporations who rely on Bangladeshi factories for their products yet deny any responsibility for the atrocious wages, living, and working conditions of those who produce all their stuff. Adding to the sense of outrage felt by many is the fact that, the day before, cracks had opened up in the building’s structure and an initial inspection resulted in its evacuation and a recommendation that it remain closed. Next morning a bank and shops on the ground floor obeyed this advice, but thousands of garments workers were ordered back to work on pain of dismissal. When generators illegally installed on the top floor were started up the building collapsed. Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL, an international union federation, called it “mass industrial slaughter.”

The screams of thousands trapped and crushed as concrete and machinery cascaded down upon them unleashed a full-spectrum shockwave, amplified by the anguished howl of millions around the world. The calamity made instant headline news. Consumers of clothes made in Bangladesh’s garment factories were confronted by their palpable connection to the people whose hands made their clothes, and about their miserable existence on this earth. Like an intense x-ray beam, the shockwave from Rana Plaza lit up the internal structure of the global economy, throwing into sharp relief a fundamental fact about global capitalism that is normally kept out of sight and mind: its good health rests on extreme rates of exploitation of workers in the low-wage countries to where production of consumer goods and intermediate inputs has been relocated. The attention of the world was drawn in particular to Bangladesh’s poverty wages — the lowest factory wages of any major exporter in the world, even after a 77 percent pay increase in November 2013; on its death-trap factories — just five months earlier a fire at nearby Tazreen Fashions killed 112 workers, who were trapped behind barred windows and locked doors while working long into the night; on the violent suppression of union rights — union activists are routinely blacklisted, beaten up, and subject to arbitrary arrest; and on the incestuous relations between factory owners, politicians, and police chiefs in Bangladesh — no employer in Bangladesh’s garment industry has ever been convicted of an infringement of health and safety legislation. What makes all this particularly relevant to this study is that the garment industry is “the quintessential example of a buyer-driven commodity chain… [where] global buyers determine what is to be produced, where, by whom, and at what price. As such, Bangladesh’s garment industry distills the export-oriented industrialization strategy pursued by capitalist governments across the Global South. As British Trades Union Congress General Secretary Frances O’Grady said in response to the Rana Plaza disaster, “this appalling loss of life proves that, in the global race to the bottom on working conditions, the finishing line is Bangladesh.

The starvation wages, death-trap factories, and fetid slums in Bangladesh are representative of the conditions endured by hundreds of millions of working people throughout the global South, the source of the surplus value sustaining profits and feeding unsustainable overconsumption in imperialist countries. The people of Bangladesh are also in the front line of another calamitous consequence of capitalism’s reckless exploitation of living labor and nature — “climate change,” more accurately described as the capitalist destruction of nature. Most of Bangladesh is low-lying, and as sea levels rise and monsoons become more energetic, farmland is being increasingly inundated with salt water, accelerating migration into the cities. As a result Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, whose population has doubled in the last twenty years and is already one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, is growing by more than 600,000 people each year. Over-extraction of fresh water is depleting Dhaka’s aquifers and, worse still, exposing them to contamination with seawater. To cap it all, Dhaka sits atop an active earthquake zone. Seismologists warn that a Richter 7.5 earthquake would reduce Dhaka to rubble and 80,000 buildings could go the same way as Rana Plaza. The predicted scale of destruction is so high because, surrounded by marshland, much of Dhaka’s chaotic, unplanned expansion has been vertical rather than horizontal, typically with the same standard of construction as was demonstrated by Rana Plaza. Bangladesh, therefore, expresses, in a concentrated form, the horrific reality of capitalist development; and the catastrophe threatening Bangladesh symbolizes the apocalypse that threatens humanity, unless the dictatorship of capital is overthrown.

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Many commentators have drawn an analogy between the Tazreen and Rana Plaza disasters and notorious disasters in the United States and Europe more than a century ago, arguing that, by catalyzing concerted action to tackle underlying causes, these recent tragedies could force Bangladesh’s garment factory bosses to finally clean up their act. Thus Amy Kazmin, writing in the Financial Times, argued that,

across the globe, industrial disasters have proved effective catalysts for change. New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, in which 146 garment workers — mostly women — were killed in part because fire exits were locked, helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which successfully fought for better conditions for factory workers, including safety. Many now say that the Rana Plaza disaster — which came five months after a fire at another Bangladeshi factory, Tazreen Fashions, killed 112 people — could start to force similar change.

There is no doubt that the Rana Plaza disaster will spur the struggle to unionize Bangladeshis garment industry. But the FT journalist forgets two things. The response of garment employers to the rise of the ILGWU was to move production to non-union states in the U.S. South, and, eventually, out of the United States altogether, to countries like Bangladesh. Today, just 2 percent of the clothing worn in the United States is actually made there. Peter Custers points out the other weakness in the naïve liberal view expressed by Amy Kazmin:

It is necessary… to be aware of structural differences between nineteenth-century British industries and those in contemporary Bangladesh. For, unlike owners of the former, Bangladeshi garment owners are at the lower end of an international chain of subcontract relations, extending from production units in Bangladesh, via intermediaries, to retail trading companies in the countries of the North… [G]arment production has been relocated to, and re-relocated within, the Third World, in order to tap cheap sources of wage labor. While local entrepreneurs obtain a part of the surplus value created, they do not get the major share. Thus, whereas the extraction of surplus value is organized by Bangladeshi owners, its fruits are overwhelmingly reaped by companies in the North.

The collapse of Rana Plaza not only shone a light on the pitiless and extreme exploitation of Bangladeshi workers. It also unleashed a powerful pulse of x-rays that lit up the hidden structure of the global capitalist economy, revealing the extent to which the capital/labor relation has become a relation between northern capital and southern labor — in no other sector has production shifted so completely to low-wage workers in oppressed nations while control and profits remain firmly in the grip of firms in imperialist countries. But also striking is the remarkable degree to which this reality diverges from fantasies projected by neoliberalism’s apologists and reflected by its critics. Few informed observers would dispute that Primark, Wal-Mart, M&S, and other major UK retailers profit from the exploitation of Bangladeshi garment workers. Why else have they raced to outsource the production of their clothes to the lowest of low-wage countries? A moment’s thought reveals other beneficiaries: the commercial capitalists who own the buildings leased by these retailers, the myriad of companies providing them with advertising, security, and other services; and also governments, which tax their profits and their employees’ wages and collect VAT on every sale. Yet, according to trade and financial data, not one penny of U.S. European, and Japanese firms’ profits or government’s tax revenues derive from the sweated labor of the workers who made their goods. The huge markups on production costs instead appears as “value-added” in the UK and other countries where these goods are consumed, with the perverse result that each item of clothing expands the GDP of the country where it is consumed by far more than that of the country where it is produced. Only an economist could think there is nothing wrong about this!

All data and experience, except for economic data, point to a significant contribution to the profits of Primark, Wal-Mart, and other western firms by the workers who work long, hard, and for low wages to produce their commodities. Yet trade, GDP, and financial flow data show no trace of any such contribution; instead, the bulk of the value realized in the sale of these commodities and all of the profits reaped by the retail giants appear to originate in the country where they are consumed. Exploring and resolving this conundrum is a central task of this book. Our first step is to examine the social, economic, and political relations between workers and employers on a world scale that are woven into the fabric of each article of apparel produced in low-wage countries like Bangladesh and sold in shopping malls across the imperialist world, where more than 80 percent of garments made in Bangladesh are sold. This will then be augmented by a forensic examination of two other representative “global commodities”: the Apple iPhone and the cup of coffee.

Copyright (2016) by John Smith. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Monthly Review Press.

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