Over 300 Bangladeshis were crushed to death in the ruins of their high-rise factory and Slate’s Matt Yglesias is annoyed. He’s not annoyed that 300 people were crushed to death, he’s annoyed that seemingly “the entire Internet” is complaining about a post he wrote while bodies were still being pulled from the rubble, arguing that the status quo is just fine because Bangladeshis are making a rational economic calculus:
Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh.
Yglesias summed up the gist of his argument in a tweet, “Foreign factories should be more dangerous than American factories.” In a follow-up post, Yglesias issued an apology of sorts, but only after spending several lines grousing about how annoyed he was that meanies of the Internet made him correct his mistake.
Yglesias’s argument was based on an implicit false premise and a bizarre hypothetical.
The false premise was that whatever caused the building collapse was legal in Bangladesh. But it turns out that Bangladeshis are as averse to being buried alive as we are. There is a national building code in Bangladesh and the politically well-connected owner of Rana Plaza flouted every rule in the book.
Now for the bizarre hypothetical: If Bangladeshis had voted themselves such lax safety laws that anyone could build a tower of any height without any input from an architect, well, I guess that would be their prerogative. And if my grandmother had balls she’d be my grandfather.
The garment workers of Rana Plaza did not freely choose to prioritize their income over their lives. When cracks appeared in the factory wall on Tuesday, many were reluctant to go to work. One factory on the upper floor threatened to dock a month’s pay from any worker who didn’t get to work immediately.
Yglesias assumed that Bangladeshi garment workers were happy to trade life and limb for meager wages, that they took the odd implosion or conflagration in stride and chalked it up to the march of progress. The massive civil unrest that followed the Plaza’s collapse shows otherwise. Protesters have burned two factories and vandalized several others.
We don’t normally think of sewing as a dangerous job on par with hard rock mining or deep sea fishing. Yet, hundreds of garment workers have died in fires and building collapses in Bangladesh over the past few years. That’s because huge numbers of clothing factories are structurally unsound and/or lacking in basic fire protection, like correct wiring and fire escapes.
A group of Bangladeshi and international trade unionists put forward a bold plan to make the garment industry in Bangladesh safer. A surcharge of 10 cents per garment over 5 years would raise $600 million a year, enough to radically transform the infrastructure of the garment industry in Bangladesh. Walmart and the Gap rejected the proposal in 2011.
The Bangladeshi government is unlikely to fundamentally transform the garment industry on its own. Many members of parliament own factories themselves. Whatever the self interests of the elites, Yglesias is right that Bangladesh is a very poor country with many pressing problems. Massive public investments in policing the garment industry may not be a high priority.
The cost of retrofitting the garment industry must be born by the Western firms that flock to Bangladesh for the cheap labor and favorable trade policies. If safety investments were made across the board, then no company could derive a competitive advantage by scrimping on safety. The garments are being made for export, so expense will be passed on to the Western consumers, not Bangladeshis.
Yglesias might argue that added expenses will drive foreign companies out of Bangladesh to somewhere even more desperate, but that’s unlikely to happen. Bangladesh is the second-largest garment exporter in the world because it has by far the lowest wages.
“Bangladesh is the rock-bottom cheapest place in the world to make clothing, wages of 18 cents an hour, ruthless oppression of any attempt by workers to organize a union, and complete disregard for the safety of workers, Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium told PBS.
Investments in safety are trivial compared to the amount that companies save on labor costs by doing business in Bangladesh.
If American companies won’t voluntarily do the right thing, maybe it’s time to consider using our own democratic process to pass laws that will make them shape up.