Toilet paper can be a major victory—in a Bangladesh sweatshop.
I'm on the email list for the National Labor Coalition, a tiny non-profit that documents the real conditions at real sweatshops around the world. I just got an email announcing a
major victory for a clothes factory in Bangladesh called R.L. Denim. Here is what victory looks like:
- The cowards who beat the young women—the general manager of the R.L. Denim factory and two abusive supervisors—have been fired.
- Workers are no longer beaten at R.L. Denim. They are treated with respect.
- Women receive their maternity leave with pay.
- Workers are now paid correctly.
- The factory now has a daycare center; a health clinic and a factory dining area have been set up.
- The workers now have purified water to drink, and the bathrooms are clean and have been supplied with soap and toilet paper. [emphasis added]
Why did the R.L. Denim owners begin paying maternity leave, stop beating workers, and, yes, supply soap and toilet paper? Because when an overworked 18-year-old died, the NLC, other groups, and individuals writing letters begin to put pressure, not on the factory, but on the retailer ordering from the factory. In this case, the German-based METRO Group.
Suddenly, METRO Group discovered that when they had checked factory conditions, they hadn't quite checked hard enough. Maybe the visiting auditors hadn't needed a bathroom break.
Now they checked really hard, got properly scandalized, and publicly cancelled their order.
Suddenly, R.L. Denim discovered a vortex in the space-time-economic continuum. Economic laws deformed, snapped, and reformed all around them. Business plans burned, and rose as the phoenix from the ashes.
They discovered that maybe, just maybe, they could make a profit and provide soap and toilet paper. It just might work.
Meanwhile, the folks at the METRO Group was making even more discoveries. Though the 3rd largest retailer in Europe and the 5th largest retailer in the world, they must have had doubts about the power of their influence. Who were they to tell a manufacturer how to run their business? Why would a mighty manufacturer listen to a lowly retailer?
But behold, the giant stooped to negotiate. In a press release this morning, METRO Group explains:
A fundamental precondition on the part of METRO Group for a renewed business relationship was that R.L. Denim significantly improves working conditions. This has been done in the meantime.
True, soap and toilet paper (not to mention maternity leave) are not free. Someone will have to pay for it. Maybe R.L. Denim. Or METRO Group. Or the consumer. Or all three.
But the laws of supply and demand must include a demand for justice. We have to be willing to pay for it.
Workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere often rise up and demand an end to inhuman conditions. Often, they simply get fired, or worse (e.g. beaten). Factory owners don't seem to listen to workers.
Apparently, they do listen to the retailers who place gigantic orders.
And the retailers listen to us. If enough of us talk, with our pen and our pocketbook.
According to the NLC, Bangladesh has over 4,000 garment factories with over 2,000,000 workers.
So here's one down. Or rather, up.
Content by Bill Powell in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.