Mohammed Sohel Rana owned a business. Like a good businessman, he hoped to grow his operation by expanding his facilities to increase production. He added three new floors to his 5-story building, where he leased space to several textile factories near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
But Mr. Rana, it seems, took short-cuts. He built without a permit. Whether through shoddy work or poor engineering, the tremendous weight added to the structure made it unsound. When cracks appeared in the building, workers became concerned. According to this report, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association asked factory owners to suspend operations. “Factory owners opened their factories relying on assurance by the building owner, who said that engineers had checked and certified that the building was okay.” It was not.
When the building collapsed on itself last Wednesday, more than 3,100 workers were inside. So far, more than 400 have been confirmed dead. With about 1,000 souls still missing, the rescue effort has been called off.
On Monday, Pope Francis offered prayers of consolation and solidarity for those affected. “I would like to offer up a prayer for [them]. I express my solidarity and deepest sympathy to the families mourning their loved ones and from the depths of my heart I make a strong appeal that the dignity and safety of the worker may always be protected.”
In addition to joining the Pope in his calls for prayers for the workers and their families, I want to make two quick points. It is easy to see the appalling conditions of a third world sweat shop and think it has nothing to do with us. This would be a mistake: the garments made in that factory were being sold in Western stores. In short, Western consumption enabled, however indirectly, the horrific business malpractice that cost so many lives.
But by the same token, we shouldn’t take for granted the cultural, legal, and moral achievements that make tragedies like the one last week all but unthinkable here in the United States. The kinds of appalling working conditions that are commonplace in Bangladesh all but disappeared from this country a century ago.
That was no accident. It happened because laws were changed. It happened because labor unions provided workers with effective means for demanding better treatment. It happened because our American entrepreneurs generated work opportunities and a growing, competitive labor market. It happened because religious leaders condemned the mistreatment of workers. And because employers—who are just as human as those they employ—chose to treat their workers like people, instead of parts.
The point isn’t to play cheerleader for America nor to gloss over our myriad shortcomings when it comes to the economy, corporate responsibility, or labor unions. The point is simply this: if the best, most humane aspects of the American economy are public and cultural achievements, and I argue they are, then those achievements can also be lost if they are not consciously maintained. The market, like democracy itself, does not—cannot—make men good of its own accord.
As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate:
The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.
Markets and laws only get us so far. It is our responsibility—especially through civil society—to guide both the market and the law so that they are effective and humane.
On this feast of St. Joseph the Worker, let’s pray for those denied the dignity of honest, meaningful work. Let us join the Pope in praying for those who lost lives and loved ones in Bangladesh. And let us pray, in a spirit of humble gratitude, for what we have been given, for the wisdom and character we will require to preserve and strengthen the achievements that are our inheritance, and for the courage and perseverance to correct the many inadequacies that remain.