Potty-training makes you do weird things. I tote oversized handbags around town, filled with spare changes of clothes and super-absorbent camping towels. I keep in the car a portable self-sealing potty which can contain waste should we need to make an emergency roadside stop. (We’ve never used it, but just in case…) I’ve attached a watch-like timer to our backpack so that the little guy is reminded by a song to visit a restroom every 90 minutes. My husband and I have rewarded our son with stickers, silly noises, and painting his toenails.
One of the most awkward choices of this parenting adventure involved a major compromise of my values–a visit to Walmart. For years, Walmart has been a place where we only purchase things we cannot find elsewhere. I avoid Walmart due to its poor treatment of female employees, active discouragement of unions and collective worker protections, and the deleterious effects its business model has on the economies of rural and small-town areas. As a Jew, fair and respectful treatment of workers is a weighty, holy obligation. The Torah mandates prompt payment for labor performed. Employers cannot expect employees to defer their own basic needs in order to acquire work. Our courts must mete out justice to the rich and poor even-handedly.
But–as I said–potty-training makes you do crazy things like going to Walmart to purchase Thomas underpants for a squirming toddler. In a moment of desperation, I concluded that I needed to provide my son with a more inviting alternative to diapers. For my train-obsessed little guy, Thomas the Tank Engine undies seemed the obvious and necessary choice. After hours spent in stores and online, it seemed that Walmart was the place to find them, and I made the purchase.
Many months have passed, and my little guy is now a Big Boy, nearly 4, happily wearing underpants every day and through the night. He takes particular pride in his train undies, but he’s a growing boy and it won’t be too long before he’s too big for the several pairs we own.
He won’t be getting any new ones.
The intervening months have not been good for the workers who made my son’s underwear. Walmart’s Thomas undies are among many, many items produced by Bangladeshi factories for American and European clothing markets. From news reports, I don’t think that the workers who made the underpants were among those who died during the recent factory tragedies. I can’t get out of my mind that they could have been; likewise for the numerous workers who made much of his wardrobe purchased from major companies on the list of those who–like Walmart–are refusing to sign on to the factory safety accord designed by international groups to monitor Bangladeshi factory conditions.
When I read the description of the Bangladeshi fires and collapses, they remind me of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, in which 146 workers, almost all Jewish and Italian young immigrant women, were killed due to unsafe workplace conditions and the locking of exits and stairwells by managers. The event caused enough of a public outcry that politicians finally recognized an opportunity for them to catalyze voters around workplace safety concerns. The end result was legislation, which has dramatically decreased risks to workers in the U.S.
In my mind, the 1911 and 2013 tragedies symbolize all that can go wrong in an international corporate structure, where the workers producing goods are invisible to consumers interested most in cheapness and expediency. Jewish tradition teaches us that neither of these are more important than the safety and well being of the workers themselves.
Unlike some Americans, I really want to buy Bangladeshi products. The citizens of that faraway country need work and opportunity no less than my direct neighbors. It is a benefit of the global economy that my comfortable family income can alleviate poverty elsewhere. But it is our responsibility as Jews to pressure companies to learn from our collective tragedies and improve workplace conditions, allow independent audits of factories and systematize binding economic and legal consequences for those companies who fail to comply.
One day recently, I told my child that he won’t be able to get a new pair of Thomas underwear when he grows out of the current ones. “On your undies, it says they were made in Bangladesh. The people who make the Thomas underpants in Bangladesh aren’t safe in their factories. The people who own the factories don’t protect their workers, and a lot of the workers got hurt. Is it more important to keep people safe or have Thomas undies?”
“Safe workers,” he replied thoughtfully.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if the managements of Walmart, Carter’s, the Gap, and all the other companies withholding their names from the binding safety accord figured that out, too?