More Outside Pressure, Please
The fear of losing business has gripped Bangladesh.
It was interesting to see a New York Times column by Mr Fazle Hasan Abed, one of the most successful longtime fighters against poverty, in the wake of the building collapse which left hundreds dead in several garment factories in the country. It was interesting because he spoke up for local workers, but in exclusion of the fact that they are workers in a global chain of production.
Apparently, as it is not possible to hide the deaths, there is an attempt to remove the taint from 'made in Bangladesh' brand with promises of local action. Mr Abed advocates of stricter state regulations and trade unions for workers. Politics essentially lies in a production process—the power struggle between labour and capital. And at this day and age, one cannot separate local capital from global capital.
Local action does matter, but stopping there would be to avoid a structural issue and to not implicate some key players. There are compliant garments manufacturers in Bangladesh. Compliant because not being so would cost them money, and make their clients lose face in the global market. These constitute the formal part of the profitable chain that buyers hold up while conveniently concealing the informal part—the numerous small factories are essential for this chain to stay so atrociously profitable.
Deaths usually occur in the non-compliant factories. These deaths were all preventable, but preventing them would either mean expanding the work-force of compliant factories—capital taking up responsibility of a lot more people than it'd like to—or letting the workers of non-compliant factories sit idly because the building has visible gashes (or letting them work with doors unlocked through which they can take regular bathroom breaks and run away if there's a fire). And murder is just the pinnacle of a variety of mistreatments. These factories also don't pay the workers on time; they don't allow them sick leaves and proper breaks or the option of refusing overtime—because time literally is money in this business. Losing a few hours may mean losing shipments.
Delayed shipments would also mean losses for the buyers. They delegate the risk onto the contractors and sub-contractors, who must meet deadlines by any means, including outsourcing to sweatshops, or running sweatshops. Buyers must acknowledge that they benefit from the system of subcontracting to factories that won't, and sometimes can't, afford to let people work on healthy terms.
The buildings that collapse or catch on fire often belong to factories that don't make much profit to begin with, and can't take risk. So they gamble on workers' lives. Survival with compliance, for these factories, will have to be subsidized by the people higher up in production chain—either the local garment producer from which they are sub-contracting or the foreign buyers that have awarded the contract to a local garment company.
This can be solved by periodic one-off spending from profit margins, either by the bigger farms, voluntarily, or by the buyers. A lot can be achieved if buyers insist on adherence and run their own inspections. None of this happens voluntarily. It's one of those pesky side effects of capitalism—this culture of letting greed get the better of humanity. The 'political will' upon which people bestow so much faith don't simply sprout. It needs to be created by political action. That is not going to happen in an environment of healthy cooperation between factory owners, civil society, foreign buyers and workers themselves. Rights must be wrenched.
Of course, trade unions are a valid demand, but won't be as effective as expected, for the same reasons state regulations don't work. Local elites know how to circumvent obligations. They have much expertise in keeping the workers unorganized and away from class politics. In such a context, trade unions will end up another node in a chain of exploitation. When workers do spontaneously unite, their rage is cleverly diverted and dampened for the sake of national economy. The power of unions comes from withholding labour. In Bangladesh, where jobs are scarce and labourers abound, it is not a great place to start a bargain from.
The bargain has to come from a position of power, and that power lies in the hands of Western consumers. It's they who should be united and who should bargain collectively for better working conditions. They could also ask for trade unions. In a global chain of supply, measures will have to be adopted at all the joints. But it will have to be global.
When the aggrieved workers were randomly smashing up cars in the elite neighbourhood after the building collapse, they were not hurting random people. They were targeting people who accept the despicable condition they work and live in the Bangladeshi middle and upper middle class, who need those profits to trickle down to people one way or another. Foreign buyers want to ignore the issue of sub-contracting because they want those super cheap clothes in bulk which the limited number of compliant factories can't profitably supply on their own. Buyers need those cheap clothes because shops are engaged in cut-throat competition with each other. And the consumers change shops looking for clothes cheaper by a dollar or so; they don't even want to know from where the cheapness is coming from.
Ceasing to buy Bangladeshi won't cut it. It will simply force buyers to find new sources of cheap clothes. To be honest, it'll make all Bangladeshis much poorer. If anybody wants things to change, he will have to force the buyers to take responsibility of every worker they profit from. Make them pay for or insist on regulations anywhere they buy from.
Vol. 46, No. 3, Jul 28-Aug 3, 2013
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