Race to the Bottom
A Historical Vignette
by Tom Parquette
The timeless parallels of Triangle and Kader exceed the record keeping of deaths, injuries and destruction. Certainly Triangle held the 'record' as the worst (fatalities) industrial fire accident through decades until the Kader incident. But the parallels far exceed fatalities, flames and rubble. They exceed the record books and the lunch room discussions of technique or international comparisons.
Triangle, as noted earlier, raised the consciousness of the nation, our nation, as to worker safety and the fledgling subject of corporate responsibility. Regardless of the nefarious dealings of Blanck and Harris, the partners in Triangle, and their ability to scam the system (or buy it off), the repercussions due to the Triangle Fire continued for decades and it became the mantra of all concerned with public and with employee safety. The American Society of Safety Engineers was founded as a result on October 14, 1911. The Women's Trade Organizations, the ILGWU and other unions used Triangle heavily as justification for organizing. NFPA undertook the writing and rewriting of codes and directives. Legislatures reacted quickly regardless of their collective bipartisan incompetence. Enforcement of these issues was clearly ratcheted up over the ensuing years, not only in New York but nationally as well. We have had other horrific fires. We have had large portions of entire cities go up in flame and we have had large loss of life. But no other fire, regardless of it's type, origin or consequence has had the collective impact on our society than the collective impact of Triangle.
And then, 82 years hence, there is Kader in Thailand. Eerily similar to Triangle in origin, substance, loss of life and aftermath. Yet the national conscious, the world conscious, in either the US or Thailand, was hardly tweaked. Thailand has laws. Many are modeled precisely to follow NFPA guidelines from our own country. Yet firm inspection, citation or possible closure in the face of violation was barely scratched just as it was barely scratched in 1911 in New York.
At this point you are likely to still be wondering where the title of this article came from. The Race To The Bottom. Four words strung together can mean many things but this time, they are specific. As countries and economies change over time the regulatory and socio-economic changes and legislations governing those changes tend to, and in fact do increase. As these burdens, if you will, of added legislative requirements and social welfare changes are implemented the cost of doing business within the boundaries of that country or political unit also increase.
We, now in our modern time, are rightly or wrongly heavily involved in a world economy.And the costs and underlying requirement of doing business are impacted by the aforementioned changes and legislation (rules, codes, policies, inspections, permits, wages, etc. etc. etc.) imposed on business operating within those same boundaries.
"Back in the Day' the sweatshop operators could, for a time, get away with basically slave labor conditions. After all, the US as well as Europe were not that far removed in 1911, for instance, from a society of slavery itself. As unscrupulous operators ignored or bent the rules for profit, disaster often followed. As the socio-economic changes developed here, countries and political subdivisions without those changes looked pretty inviting to the barons of the times.
This has caused the Race To The Bottom. The bottom rung of operating costs and the attendant legislative requirements leading to or impacting those costs. This phenomena, if you will, largely is what has led to the exportation of much of the US labor market to the underdeveloped (read unimpacted) geographies and certainly if not underdeveloped or unimpacted then those geographies which readily lend themselves to graft, bribery and corruption to circumvent those socio-economic changes and rule implementations.
The Kader facility in total was only owned by Thai citizens to the extent of .4% of it's stock holding. The balance was owned by Hong Kong, US and European investors. The social responsibility didn't exist. And as or if Thailand tightens the screws, the next country of choice, Bangladesh perhaps, becomes the next rung down on the cost of doing business ladder in the world economy, and so on.
This article makes no attempt to become a political dissertation in any way. The author exacts no specific condemnation on any country or society. It is alleged though, that China for instance, has made some effort to impose fire and worker safety regulations on it's manufacturing base. The same manufacturing base that is undermining the economies of countless nations, ours included. And, it is also alleged for instance, that Walmart, one of the worlds largest buyers from Chinese manufacturing, is lobbying heavily to curtail those same regulations. This is the same Walmart that claims it didn't know tens of millions of dollars were paid to bribe the Mexican officials for store locations. Being the skeptic that I am, I challenge any Walmart employee to spend tens of millions of dollars without Walmart knowing where its going.
That's it. The Race To The Bottom continues as it has for decades. It sadly may continue for decades more until true corporate responsibility is legitimately imposed from within, not by regulation. And it will continue for as long as we have bi-partisan incompetence in our political subdivisions, here and abroad. And, still sadly, all this may continue for as long as 'we' find it desireable to save a buck on some cheaply made crap at the local discount mavens cave. Yes it may continue. And too, the Triangles and the Kaders will continue as well. Oh, the location may change. The numbers may change. But the Race To The Bottom won't. The race to build substandard facilities, temporary facilities really, will continue. Until the political heat gets too hot or too expensive or the bribes don't work. Then the scoundrels will fold up the temporary operation and move on.
It sadly makes the terrible, deadly lessons learned all the more terrible and deadly. But wait! I did say this story wouldn't turn in to a commentary or opinion piece, didn't I? Well, steam has to vent somewhere, sometime. Maybe George Santayana was right after all.
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