The Clothing factory Fire that Killed over 100 People in Bangladesh (NBC News Photo)
The past weekend was a juxtaposition of contradictions for me. On a personal level it was one of the best Thanksgivings that Judy and I have ever had together. We enjoyed a simple home cooked meal together, relaxed during the day with our two dogs Molly and Minnie and then saw the James Bond film Skyfall that night. We avoided the big stores and shopping for the most part except things that we needed. It was nice. We were able to spend time with each other and friends on both Friday and Saturday and enjoy each other.
All that being said it was kind of strange because in our time of relaxing and enjoying a manner of solitude and peace there were things that I noticed or thought about that struck me odd. Thanksgiving is quite possibly the only uniquely American holiday that binds us together as people and families. It can be religious but it doesn’t have to be because being thankful is something that is not unique to religious people. With that being said it seems to me that the holiday is being crushed by the gross materialism and consumerism of “Black Friday” which now begins early Thursday evening.
As I thought about this there was news of a fire in a clothing factory in Bangladesh, so far at least 109 people are known dead. The factory made clothing for a good number of American retailers, clothing that at one time before retailers outsourced the jobs was made in America. The reason that the jobs were outsourced was for their profit margins. I live in eastern North Carolina, which at one time was a center of the American textile industry. That industry has been decimated over the past couple of decades. Empty factories and businesses that used to employ Americans making goods that other Americans bought have been shuttered.
The retailers and Wall Street say that it is because that American made goods were uncompetitive because American workers were paid too much and because of government regulations, particularly regulations involving safety and the environment. So they closed their American operations and moved them to China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where there are few if any regulations, were workers are often slave labor or indentured servants and were neither worker safety or the environment is a concern.
It struck me because a couple of weeks ago I needed some socks. So I went to the Marine Corps Exchange on Camp LeJeune. They have numerous supposedly American brands, all the big ones. As I looked through the socks I started noticing that in almost every case they were made in China, except some by Dockers which were made in Pakistan. And this was in a military exchange where even much of the official Marine Corps logo clothing and goods are made in China. So I decided to look at where my clothes were made. In about 5 minutes of sorting I found nothing made in the USA, only a few t-shirts said that the were made of American components but assembled in Honduras. Other clothes, China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Swaziland, Indonesia and Macau.
Electronics, household goods and many other common things that we purchase are little different, many if not most are now made overseas by people that are often slave laborers. So as I watched retailers crushing the one really American family holiday selling goods from everywhere but America I was appalled. When I saw the report of the 109 people killed in the Bangladeshi factory I felt a sense of revulsion about the crass inhumanity of Black Friday and American consumerism.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911
As a historian and a priest I look back at events like the Triangle Shirtwaist of 1911 where 146 workers died and wonder how it is that we can allow ourselves to support economic policies that do the same thing to people in other countries that were common here little more than a century ago. It is like we are engaged in an orgy of buying while people are dying to subsidize the bargains that we get.
So I don’t really know how to feel. I am thankful for the many blessings that I enjoy but I am very torn when I see what is going on, especially when I see the same corporations that profit by these policies squeezing their workers more every day.
So I am going to be more careful to try to not just “buy American.” But I am also going to do what I can to modify my own buying habits within the limits of the current situation. I am also going speak out about the terrible injustices of the outsourcing that has gutted the industrial strength of our country and also allows the practical enslavement of entire peoples by despotic governments propped up by “American” owned companies.
For me this is not simply an American issue, it is a human rights issue and it is the Christian thing to do. As Pope Leo XII wrote in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) in 1891: “If we turn not to things external and material, the first thing of all to secure is to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making. It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies…”
There is much more to write on this but not tonight.