Two weeks ago today, an eight-story office building in Bangladesh collapsed during morning rush hour. A little more than 3,000 workers were inside, and most of them worked for one of the building's garment makers; the shops and a bank that called the high-rise home closed when cracks in the building were discovered on April 23. One garment company reportedly threatened to dock its employees one month's pay if they did not return to work the next day. Some of those workers may be among the 400 confirmed casualties and the 1,000 that are still missing and presumed dead.
That a tragedy like this can happen in the 21st century is something we should all be ashamed of. Sadly, it is something that will continue to happen if the march toward the deregulation of industry continues.
One of the most infuriating bits of political rhetoric thrown around is the right-wing talking point about how "regulations" stand in the way of business and how "regulations" keep businesses from hiring, from innovating, from producing more widgets for you to buy. The only thing that these "regulations" accomplish, the Right says, is to raise prices. They couldn't be more wrong.
Regulations save lives, especially if there are enough people to enforce them. The eight-story-tall Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh was only supposed to be five stories; the three additional stories were reportedly built illegally. The owners of the building and the garment factories inside it face serious criminal charges and the seizure of their assets, but none of this will change the death toll. And no amount of monetary compensation will erase the pain that this tragedy has caused.
In the U.S., conservatives want you to believe that this could never happen here. They will say that we have moved far away from the Wild West capitalism that created the Rana Plaza collapse and that business owners in this country are far more rational and responsible than those in the Third World. What they ignore, however, is an American history filled with our own versions of Rana Plaza.
One of the most infamous was the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. When a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the 10-story building holding the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a combination of poor lighting and locked doors contributed to the deaths of 146 women. Some died from the smoke and fire, while others jumped to their deaths in order to escape the flames. Twenty workers died when an overcrowded fire escape collapsed from the side of the building.
Of course, conservatives will tell you that the Triangle Factory Fire was 100 years ago; they'll say that nothing like that happens in America anymore. And they will tell you that workers don't need unions because today's American workers are capable — and free, by God — to leave any job that doesn't suit them. They will try to sell you this line repeatedly. It is as empty as it is insulting to the average working person's intelligence.
Just ask the people of Hamlet, N.C., where just over 20 years ago 25 workers lost their lives in a fire at a chicken processing plant. In the case of the Hamlet plant, the doors were chained from the outside. Sadly, the individual who ordered the doors to be locked served only four years of a nearly 20-year sentence.
More recently, the West Fertilizer Company in Texas caught fire and exploded, killing at least 15 people and flattening the surrounding neighborhood. The most recent OSHA inspection of the plant was in 1985, at the height of the Reagan Administration. At the time, OSHA fined the fertilizer plant $30 for improper chemical storage. This incident highlights a key problem when it comes to regulations — the government is often unable or unwilling to enforce its own rules.
During the Reagan years, Washington cut funding to many regulatory agencies, and as a result they were unable to perform their legal duties adequately. Under George W. Bush it got worse. Many regulatory agencies simply became extensions of the corporations they were supposed to be overseeing.
It may be true that there are outdated regulations, ones that truly stifle business owners, but to say that the answer is to wade into the morass of regulatory legislation with a chainsaw is irresponsible, and the lack of proper regulatory oversight and enforcement is criminal.
The mantra that America must deregulate our industries in order to compete in the global marketplace is wrong-headed and foolish. And anyone who believes this thinks the life of the average worker is worth less than their boss' bottom line.