There are several random events happening around the world that repaint an old picture that there has always been and will always be groups of people who are exploited for gain. Some of these events may not appear connected toward that purpose, but let me highlight a few, as we need to bang the drum and shout out to others, that this is not right and we need leaders to be more responsible stewards. As an old fart, I also have witnessed and grow weary of excuses that companies and governments give that try to mask helping out people with the real problems.
Bangladesh Garment Factory Collapse
This story is prima facies evidence of a much bigger problem that is not restricted to Bangladesh. After being told by the police to shut down, the factory leaders said to continue to come to work and now after the building has collapsed, there are hundreds dead or still unaccounted for. I heard a report that said there are likey 5,000 of these buildings in the area. At the heart of the problem is business tends to chase cheap labor, especially the textile business. It moved from England, to New England, to the Carolinas, to China, to Vietnam and to areas like Bangladesh with the purpose of getting very low labor costs. With that movement comes not only cheap labor, but cheap working conditions. The exploitation is pervasive and these people have no voice or few options to say I refuse to work in this hell hole that is about to fall down.
The sellers of cheap clothing and other products here in the US and other first world places have purposefully distanced themselves from this economic slavery. They do not want to be held accountable. They do not want to know how corners are cut by their suppliers. The only way to stop this is for the buyers to tell the sellers that this cannot be tolerated. We customers need to say we are not going to buy your cheap stuff until you clean up your supply chain and stop preying on people. We need to vote with our feet.
West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion
This is another horrible tragedy and I feel for the community and the EMTs who were on site after the first explosion, only to lose their lives. Two major points are needed to be made. First, this is a key reason we have regulations. Yet, we need inspectors who need to be staffed and funded to do their jobs. We need people who are trained to go to places where accidents could cause fatalities. The problem is the inspectors get cut when budgets are cut and the small towns like this suffer. The plant had well beyond the acceptable limits of ammonium nitrate, which is explosive. The modus operandi is it is OK to cut the number of inspections of these small towns because their voice is not loud enough to be heard. These small towns have a high prevalence of low-income workers and not people who will make waves.
Second, I have not seen any discussion of this next point. Why did the town build a hospital, nursing home and a school so close to a fertilizer plant? Especially after the Oklahoma City bombing in the 1990’s where the damage was done using products that are held in the West fertilizer plant such as ammonium nitrate. To me, leaders were shortsighted. They should have laid out new development to be more distant from the plant, not so close. Maybe I am making too much out of this last issue, but we need leaders to be responsible planners. When they are not, people can be in harms’ way and not know it for years until it is too late.
Medicaid Expansion Issue
This issue shifts from the above paradigm, but only a little. There are numbers of conservatively led states in the US who have not agreed to accept federal money to expand Medicaid in their states. This is a part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that is designed to help the less fortunate in each state. The economics of the deal are very good and several other conservatively red states recognize this and are taking the federal money and expanding Medicaid. The others are states that actually need it the most – Mississippi, SC, NC , etc. – yet, the decision is a political pawn in a game with the President. The problem is the pawns get screwed in this, not the politicians.
In NC, over 500,000 people are impacted by this decision, Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Their politics matter not as poverty knows no political affiliation. Well, what does this have to do with poverty? Plenty. The number one reason for personal bankruptcy is the absence of (or limited) healthcare. A key reason to homelessness is the absence of healthcare. Many employees of restaurants and retailers, due to the near-minimum or minimum wage, cannot afford healthcare, so they opt-out of their employer’s coverage. I am sitting ten miles from headquarters of two retailers who both have less than 30% of employees enrolled in their healthcare plans. The Medicaid expansion would help many people in or near poverty, so when it is turned down, my question to those state legislatures is “what do you plan to do for these folks?”
Airline Furlough Reversal
Since the sequester was done, the first major impact felt by people was on delays in airline flights. Apparently, air traffic controllers and other personnel were told to be away from work one day a week (or furloughed) to save on budget costs. The goal was to do most of these furloughs before the heavier summer travel season. Note, there are many other cuts that have and are occurring in other service agencies that are designed to help people in poverty or who are elderly. Unfortunately, these are people lower on the totem pole and their voice is not heard.
Yet, our upper middle-income and above class were impacted by delayed flights. People who could afford to travel were delayed. Note, they did not lose services, they were just inconvenienced. The tragedy is these folks complained and action was taken. We cannot help out a child in poverty whose Head Start dollars are being slashed, but we need to make sure a person in a suit and tie does not miss a flight. I am not the only one who has highlighted this – David Brooks, the conservative columnist made the same lament on PBS Newshour on Friday night. The “haves” are protected. The “have-nots” do not have a voice. It is OK to use and abuse these folks.
Poverty is a global problem that exists even in the US. We have 50 million here in poverty. The world-wide problem is in the billions. Yet, we ignore the problem for the most part, unless it is so severe that it warrants what little attention we can afford it. Usually, money is used to band-aid situations to make us feel better. Yet, we have systemic problems that cause poverty which need to be addressed. One clear way is to make better avenues for women. I just started reading “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and, per their findings, clearly there is evidence that if women can be given opportunities, poverty for both genders can be limited. They argue you can turn oppression of women into opportunity that will help a society flourish. Per a Chinese proverb, women hold up “half the sky.” If you ignore half the sky, then you are short-changing everyone.
Yet, we need to insist on fair wages and working conditions for all. We cannot tolerate the exploitation of workers, even in the US. We need to be more knowledgable of where we buy our clothes and where they get their supplies. We need to tell retailers, we will be willing to pay more to assure better wages and conditions will occur around the globe. At the very minimum, we need to insist working conditions are better and the places are inspected. And, we need to start with places in the US. We need better wages, too, but we also need regulations to make sure employers toe the line and do their part.
I heard a story about the BP Horizon Oil derrick that exploded in the gulf. People in the industry knew that BP was a poor operator and it was only a matter of time. The inspectors were also overworked and under trained and companies like BP funded boondoggles to befriend the higher up regulators. Yet, it was put simply the other day by a scientist on why we must be vigilant. An oil company is only as good as its worst operator. There are so many along the Gulf of Mexico’s whose lives were forever changed by the oil spill. The “haves” made it through, while the “have-nots” suffered more. We owe it to people and our environment that we hold industry accountable. The same could be said for employers who get their supplies from people working in bad conditions. What happened in Bangladesh will happen again there and in other places.
Gandhi said a society’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. I believe this to be true. I am not asking for handouts for these folks. I am asking we treat them with dignity and respect, provide fair wages in safe conditions and let them flourish. They do not need to be kings and queens to make society better, but if more people are living with a higher standard of living, all of society benefits. The used and abused need not be commodities. They can become assets for us all. And, if we leverage those assets, then all of us will reap the reward.