Merlene Davis: Stand with Bangladeshi garment workers

I'm cheap. Everyone knows that.

Perhaps that is why I was so saddened when I learned Saturday that a fire killed at least 117 workers in a factory in Bangladesh where 1,700 people worked for pennies to make polo shirts, fleece jackets and T-shirts for U.S. and European companies.

It struck me that I might have contributed to that tragedy by failing to check the origins of the clothing I buy. As long as it was a bargain, I didn't care.

I had tried to buy American when it was a popular movement several years ago, but after a while, it was too difficult. Most of the items I selected were made in other countries.

On Saturday, I saw just how exploitative one of those countries could be.

According to The Associated Press, the operations director for the fire department there said it was not the fire but a lack of safety measures that caused many of the deaths.

That reverberated in my mind.

Most of the garment workers in Bangladesh earn about $40 a month while working 12- to 14-hour days. That is not a living wage in any country. Those insane wages have made Bangladesh one of the top three exporters of clothing, along with China and Vietnam, because clothing companies are beating down their doors.

There are about 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh that earn $20 billion annually from overseas clothing sales, which amount to about 80 percent of its exports, reported the Boston Globe.

So American and European clothiers who are vying for my tightly held dollars while building massive profits for shareholders are doing so with near-slave labor.

I thought some tennis shoe companies and prominent designers had changed once those conditions were revealed to them. I thought things had changed for the people who were making the items I wear and use.

Saturday revealed that that just might not be true.

The factory that burned Saturday was owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd., a subsidiary of Tuba Group, whose clients have included Wal-Mart and IKEA, according to its website.

ABC News said activists for Worker Rights Consortium, an American group working to improve conditions at foreign factories that make clothes for U.S. companies, said they found labels for Faded Glory, a Wal-Mart private label, along with labels for Sears and a clothing company owned by Sean "Diddy" Combs. The companies, however, have not verified that.

To its credit, Wal-Mart did notify Tazreen Fashions and its parent company that the factory had a high-risk safety rating after an audit in May 2011. An August 2011 letter warning owners of the rating stated that Wal-Mart would re-inspect in a year.

So why should we care? Why is that our problem?

Well, in 1911, 146 workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, the youngest of whom was 11, died in a garment factory fire in New York City. The Triangle Waist Co.'s owners had resisted calls to improve working conditions for its employees.

Shortly after the fire, New York passed numerous building, fire and safety codes that carried stiff penalties for anyone choosing to run a sweatshop. Soon the rest of the country followed.

So if it is important enough for Americans to be protected by safety rules, why not the mostly women and young people who work in Bangladesh?

And if Bangladesh doesn't comply with urges from U.S. companies to change, perhaps the companies could all agree to bring those jobs back to America, where Americans are better protected.

The companies could then explain to cheap folks like me that we will have to pay more for a garment in order to ensure that workers in other countries aren't risking their lives to scratch out a living in a sweatshop.

And board members could explain to their shareholders that profits should not come at the expense of human lives. Owners, too, could give up a few thousand square feet of living space or that nice boat to treat workers more humanely.

On Monday, 15,000 Bangladeshi workers protested blocks from the site of the fire, demanding justice for the victims and improved safety. About 200 factories were closed for the day because of protests near the capital, Dhaka.

We all should join them by checking labels carefully and demanding safety for all workers. Or we should insist that those jobs be brought back home to America, where they are needed anyway.

I can go a spell without new tennis shoes, shirts or jeans to get that point across.

Can't you?