Household Hazards

How everyday products make us sick.

What Constitutes a Household Hazard?

Fire in Pakistan Raises Questions at Home

A recent disastrous factory fire in a Pakistan poses the difficult moral question of what our own personal responsibilities are as consumers in a globalized economic marketplace. Asked another way, is it a household hazard if the danger was borne by others far away rather than by the purchaser who brings a product home?

The details of the Pakastani garment factory fire are pertinent.  As reported in the New York Times, the mid-September conflagration claimed 289 lives by initial count. In a Triangle Shirt Waste redux (the 1911 New York garment factory fire that shocked the nation and mobilized unionization), the main exit door was locked (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/13/world/asia/hundreds-die-in-factory-fires-in-pakistan.html?pagewanted=all). Surviving workers even reported that the Ali Enterprises managers forced some to stay in the burning building in order to save stock from destruction.

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A week after the disaster, it emerged that the month before, inspectors had visited the plant and reported that nothing was seriously amiss. That, in and of itself, would not be very newsworthy. But these were not routine governmental inspectors. They were working for Social Accountability International (SAI) ( http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/world/asia/pakistan-factory-passed-inspection-before-fire.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) . This is a nonprofit financed by for-profit corporations that market apparel and subcontract out its manufacture. As per its website banner:  “SAI's mission is to advance the human rights of workers around the world” (http://www.sa-intl.org/).  SAI also, it seems, subcontracts its “inspections.” In the case of Ali Enterprises, the inspection was performed by the RINA group, an Italian-based, multinational, for-profit entity. It gave the factory an “SA8000” certification, a highfalutin designation that is supposed to guarantee international standards have been met on multiple fronts, including requirements for health and safety. SAI admitted that Ali Enterprises got a heads up that its inspectors would be paying a call; workers (lucky survivors) reported that before the inspection they were warned to lie to the visitors about their working conditions or risk losing their jobs. Many lost their lives instead.

In the William Zanzinger-ish narrative that followed, many officially voiced shock, dismay, and concern, from  the spokesperson for Social Accountability International (“It’s unimaginably horrible”) to the chairman of the Pakistani Garment Exporters and  Manufacturers Association  (“We are shellshocked by what happened”). RINA took a bold step by announcing that it had “decided, as a precautionary measure, to voluntarily suspend new certification activities in Pakistan” (http://www.rina.org/en/rina_details/ali_enterprises.aspx) .  Diesel denied that a pair of burnt pants with its label found on the ruined premises meant that it did business with Ali Enterprises. The factory owners were reported to be on the lam.

So it seems it is not enough to shop with one eye to price and another on the lookout for a seal of approval that, if you look behind the sweatshop curtain, may mean little more than a testimonial from the Wizard of Oz. And this concern may not be relevant only to imported apparel, but also to homegrown food. Ironically the same day the front-page story appeared on  the failed inspection in the Karachi fire, the New York Times also ran a one paragraph AP item (page 21)noting the fine received by a Texas company that had garnered decades of profits from an Iowa turkey processing plant where mentally disabled workers lived in a dilapidated bunkhouse, working year after year for substandard wages (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/us/iowa-back-wages-are-ordered-for-disabled-turkey-plant-workers.html?_r=0 ).  It was not stated where the turkey meat products were sold. They would not have been exported to the big German retailer of Ali Enterprises apparel, because that store chain doesn’t trade in food items– it’s a discounter called KiK, whose initials stand for Kunde ist König – the Customer is King.                 

Paul D. Blanc, M.D., M.S.P.H., is Professor of Medicine and Endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

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