12:00 AM, December 03, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 03, 2012

Is human life worth less than the price of a Louis Vuitton handbag?

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Quamrul Haider

Photo: Anisur Rahman

I wouldn't be surprised if on Valentine's Day, a garment factory owner in Bangladesh gift's his wife or mistress or girlfriend a Louis Vuitton handbag priced anywhere between $30,00 and $5,000. That's cheap! If he has class, he may serenade her in a $50,00 a night hotel suite with a partial view of the Central Park in New York, take her out for dinner at the Maxim's, and go on a diamond-buying spree at the Tiffany's. If he is really romantic and at the same time wants to announce loudly to his fellow kin how much he is worth, he will rent the yacht "Monkey Business" and sail to Bimini Island in the Bahamas with his lady love. If he is a stag, he may spend $1,250 per hour for a female escort's company in New York City or Las Vegas.
Now, let me ask the $1,250 question: Who are the people fueling the lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous, or may be not so famous, of Bangladesh? The answer, dear readers, is the lowly garment factory workers, mostly young females, who would otherwise panhandle, or work as a tortured maid, or end up leading an ignominious life in a house of ill-repute. They are toiling, they are sweating, and they are dying, so that the owners may live a life of luxury and opulence.
Why am I chastising these "honest" industrialists who have made fortunes from a legitimate business? I have nothing against these people. They can do whatever they want with their "hard-earned" money. I do not want to be the Ralph Nader of Bangladesh. I am happy as a professor of modest means. But the recent deaths of over 100 workers at the Tazreen Fashions Limited, ironically at a place called Nischintopur, caused by a fire that could have been prevented made me ponder, "How much is a human life worth?" I didn't have to do a Google search for the answer. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) provided me with the answer -- loud and clear: it is $1,250. Is this some sort of a cruel joke? Frankly, if this is a barometer of the moral climate of Bangladesh, then it stinks!
Did our bacchanalian lust for wealth made us forget that human life is priceless? Drowned in wealth and insulated from the harsh realities of life, these people are obviously blind to the fact that as the only earning member in the family, the death of garment workers shatters the dreams of their dear ones. Who will now pay for their children's education and marriage? Who will put food on the dinner plates? Have the owners even paused for a moment and thought about this? No matter how distasteful it is, I guess for someone making less than $50 per month, BGMEA reckons that $1,250 in the kitty should be more than enough to see through the family for the rest of their life! Shamefully, this puts life at the same level as buying food with discount coupons in a supermarket.
There is nothing new in death. It is inevitable. What bothers me is how the living, particularly the rich in Bangladesh, regard the dead. In the United States, the justice system considers human life precious, thus making any form of slavery or unregulated labor practice illegal. The price tag put on a single life for accidental death was $6.8 million during the "baby" Bush administration. It has gone up since President Barack Obama took office, and is adjusted upward every year to factor in inflation. It is even higher, $9.1 million, if death is caused by pollution-related diseases.
It is not the job of BGMEA to quantify one's life in terms of money. Every human life is unique and irreplaceable. So, let the actuaries do the calculation they have been trained to do; they have the metric to determine what should be the price tag for a human life. In the meantime, the least BGMEA can do is to ensure that the family's standard of living, if they have any, and aspirations of their dependents are not affected because of the unfortunate but preventable disaster.
Legal loopholes in the system and political connections prevent business culprits in Bangladesh from being arrested and prosecuted, even though they may be in gross violation of occupational and safety hazard laws. They are still roaming the shopping arcades around the world buying Louis Vuittons or Rolexes or Lladrós, while the kinfolks of the dead are dipping into their life's savings to bury their near and dear ones. If they do not have the means for proper burial, Anjuman Mufidul Islam will do the job; but there is no compunction from the owner of the factory where these unfortunate souls worked and died.
According to Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop advocacy group based in Amsterdam, more than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in factory fires in the last six years. With the latest 100 plus deaths, one wonders how many more have to die to stir the conscience of the owners.
If Bangladesh doesn't want to be grouped with Pakistan as amongst those countries where industrial criminals can get away without being prosecuted and penalised, the government has to swing into action and enforce each and every law in the book to the letter to protect workers' lives and rights. As noted by Thomas Jefferson: "The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government."
American consumers are angry. They will put a lot of pressure on retail stores to boycott garments from Bangladesh. After the latest fire incident, New York Times reports: "Activists say that global clothing brands like Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap and those sold by Wal-Mart need to take responsibility for the working conditions in Bangladeshi factories that produce their clothes. These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps." Today, Wal-Mart announced a partial pull-out. Tomorrow, it could be Sears, or J. C. Penney, or Macy's. Next time I go to these or other stores to purchase clothing, I will make sure that the label does not read "Made in Bangladesh."
When will the garment tycoons of Bangladesh realise that without the dead serfs, the big buyers, and millions of consumers like me, the $20 billion a year bubble may soon burst? They will then have to be content with Big Buddha Handbags, Holiday Inn for romancing and St. Martin's Island for vacation. Perhaps they don't care. They may have accumulated enough wealth to last a few generations.
Bill Gates is a multi-billionaire. So is Warren Buffett. But their lifestyle belies their wealth. They share it with the poor of the world. They take care of their employees by providing life, disability, and health insurances. Funds are set aside to pay for the retirement benefit of the workers. They get handsome bonus and paid vacation days. Why is there resistance to put these measures in place for Bangladeshi workers?
It is high time the millionaires and billionaires of Bangladesh are given a lesson on philanthropy and humanity. They should also learn how to run a business with a heart. It won't hurt them to spare a few dimes for the poor. It won't make them poor; it will make them good human beings, at the least. And they won't have to go to Mecca every year to reserve a suite in the heaven.
Finally, Bagngladeshi industrialists will do themselves mighty good if they imbibe the following words of wisdom from Lord Buddha: "Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue."

The writer is Professor, Department of Physics & Engineering Physics, Fordham University, New York.

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