You may know now that Dateline did a report on a Wal-Mart supplier in Bangladesh on Friday night. There were two diaries on it before I even got downstairs to the computer. However, as many of you have other things to do on a Friday and the text of the report
is 6 pages long, I thought you might appreciate some excerpts along with analysis.
For me, the heart of the story was when reporter Chris Hansen brought Masuma (a 21- year old Bangladeshi mother, textile worker and center of the story) to a Wal-Mart in Connecticut. There she found the same pants she sewed stripes on back in Bangladesh. While this event was obviously no coincidence, it was undeniably powerful:
[Masuma, through a translator:] "They make us work so hard, and they cheat us so much and we're human beings. I'm not an animal. I'm a human being. Of course I'm angry. This is really shocking."
Masuma's angry words come in the Wal-Mart parking lot after she's learned the retail price of her work. Why is she angry? You can probably guess. She's not angry because Wal-Mart charges so little per pair, but because they charge $12.84 and she gets the equivalent 17 cents per hour. Furthermore, Masuma's working conditions are less than ideal:
Masuma: "I have to sit in front of the machine the whole time. I can't move. I can't even go to the bathroom without my supervisor's permission. After sitting for so long, I feel pain throughout my body."
[Narrator:] Conditions like these might seem unacceptable to Americans, but they're common in a poor place like Bangladesh. Extreme heat for instance. Factories like Masuma's aren't air conditioned, and even in a well-ventilated factory, we found temperatures can easily exceed 90 degrees.
Masuma says she has a quota: 80 stripes an hour. That means more than one stripe every minute, and they have to be perfectly straight. If she doesn't meet the quota, she says, she has to work extra for no pay.
And her hours are extreme:
[Narrator:] The factory director said his employees work a maximum of 10 hours a day and get out by 7 p.m. But Masuma told us her typical day ends later than that.
Masuma: "Usually I work until at least 8 pm, but often they will keep us and make us work until 10 p.m."
[Narrator:] And she says she frequently has to work Fridays, the Muslim holy day, which by law is supposed to be a day off. On average, she says she works more than 70 hours a week. At least 10 hours more than allowed by the local law. It's not hard to confirm that many factories exceed that limit.
While many advocates of unfettered globalization such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman suggest that workers in developing countries are grateful for their jobs, Masuma clearly stands in direct opposition to that argument. A harder question to answer is who is Masuma angry at? Certainly, she has a right to be angry at the people who run her factory, but she was probably angry at them before she came to the United States. However, her trip to Connecticut has given her another target - Wal-Mart:
She says the price of the pants leaves her feeling taken advantage of. If she was paid 25 cents an hour instead of 17, a 50 percent raise, she says she could lead what she considers a decent life.
Translator: "So these few hundred taka would mean I could have a diet that consisted of more than lentils and rice, I could buy a few good vegetables, fish. I could buy more food products for my daughter."
Wal-Mart does not employ Masuma, but Wal-Mart has taken on the responsibility of inspecting her factory to make sure that it respects basic human rights and local employment law. Guess what? Wal-Mart admits it inspected Masuma's factory in 2004 and
"identified numerous violations of standards" and "worked with the factory to ensure better performance."
The company says "ensuring proper workplace standards is an ongoing challenge" and it will "discontinue business with factories that will not take corrective action."
It's been a year and obviously nothing has happened. How long is it going to take, Wal-Mart? Frankly, I'm surprised they found any problems with Masuma's factory at all, considering this:
[Narrator:] And one man, introduced to us by a local labor group, asked us to protect his identity. He is a supervisor at a large factory in Bangladesh. He says that when American companies send inspectors to check on the codes of conduct, they don't always get the real story because some workers are coached to lie.
Factory Supervisor: "You're supposed to say that this factory is closed on Fridays and that no one works here at night. If anyone tells the buyer otherwise, then the company will fire them."
[Narrator:] He says they go so far as to make up phony records, including time cards showing a normal 10 hour shift ending at 7 p.m., even though the workers themselves say they were on the job until much later -- something he says they don't want American companies to know.
Factory Supervisor: "They hide the extra overtime from the buyer. The reason is that they want to show the buyer that they treat the workers well and follow all the rules."
Just yesterday, a whistleblower came forward charging Wal-Mart with covering up horrible conditions at their suppliers' factories in Central America. With their record, you have to believe they do it in Bangladesh too. While such charades are undoubtedly true for many American retailers, Wal-Mart's legendary penny-pinching ways gives it added reason to look the other way when conducting inspections. As one Bangladeshi supplier explained to Dateline:
Executive: "A few years back, I told Wal-Mart, "Give me one cents more a piece, one cent. I will use that money for these poor people.' He says, `No, give us two cents less.'"
Another possible target for Masuma's anger would have been Wal-Mart's customers, but the report showed none of that even though they confronted a Wal-Mart shopper right in the store with Masuma's story. However, in e-mails to Dateline regarding this report, Wal-Mart was more than happy to blame their customers for their actions:
The company also says it considers itself an advocate of lower prices for the customer and makes no apologies for driving a hard bargain with its suppliers.
In much the same vein, the reporter, Chris Hansen, spoke of "the demand we've placed on retailers to keep prices low" at one point in the report.
But is that real what Wal-Mart's customers want? When shown Masuma's story, two bargain-loving shoppers told Dateline they would have no trouble paying 25 or 50 cents more for a pair of pants if it made her life better. And that's an important point about globalization to make. In this week's Time magazine Wal-Mart puff piece, a representative of Wal-Mart China argued:
"If you stop stuff from [abroad] coming into the U.S....it would mean $180 blue jeans. Is that what Americans want?''
In truth, it's not whether you have unfettered globalization or complete protectionism; it's exactly how far are we going to let companies go in the pursuit of profit above all other interests?
The National Labor Committee, which collaborated with Dateline on the report, has started a "20 cents more" campaign, to force stores like Wal-Mart to get a living wage to the people who assemble the garments that they sell in their stores. You can read about it here.
In the end, I think Masuma's trip to a Connecticut Wal-Mart is a lesson in the power of transparency to change the brutality of globalization. When people can attach a face and a story to the garments they buy, they might be willing to pressure producers to treat other working class people who happen to be in a foreign country better (even if it does cost them a little more). At the same time, when workers realize what their work is being sold for, they might just stand up and fight for a bigger piece of the pie. Wal-Mart, of course, benefits by keeping both sides in the dark.
Until we can have an angry Bangladeshi worker in every Wal-Mart, we'll have to count on programs like Dateline to tell these stories. If you know anything about Tom Friedman you can be certain that he isn't going to do it.