Satyajit Das: The New Colonialism – Businesses Refuse Spend a Few Cents More Per Garment to End Labor Exploitation in Emerging Markets

Yves here. Das wrote this post to commemorate the anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which killed over 1100 garment workers.

By Satyajit Das, a former banker and author of Extreme Money and Traders Guns & Money

Human rights and working conditions in emerging nations, where many products consumed in developed countries are made, have been debated for many years.

In April 2013, the Rana Plaza, an eight-storey complex of clothing factories near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed killing more than 1,100. The collapse followed an earlier fire at Tazreen Fashions, another Dhaka factory, which killed more than 100 people. In 2010, 10 workers at a Foxconn electronics factory in China, a supplier to Apple, committed suicide.

Reported deaths are only a miniscule part of the human cost of low cost manufacturing in emerging markets. As George Orwell wrote about the Spanish civil war: “[certain terrible things had really happened and] they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late”.

In 1911, 146 workers, mostly women as in Bangladesh, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, becoming a catalyst for the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which successfully fought for safer and better conditions for factory workers. In emerging markets, such changes are unlikely.

Frame Up…

With its garments intended for foreign markets, the Rana Plaza incident quickly became ‘framed’ from a Western perspective.

Foreign customers were deeply shocked, expressing concern about the unsafe and poor working conditions. Firms who sourced products from the factory went into damage control, concerned about reduced sales and ‘brand damage’ from picketing and threats of consumer boycotts.

Some, like Primark, a low-cost British retailer, and Loblaw, a Canadian clothing firm, accepted some responsibility, agreeing to compensate victims and their families as well as work to improve practices. Others sought to distance themselves from the event, pleading difficulties of policing and ensuring compliance by suppliers who having agreed to meet certain standards outsourced production to non-compliant operations.

Labour rights advocates, local unions and the International Labour Organization (“ILO”) focused on the need for unions to effectively represent worker interests.

Economists argued that the tragic death of workers should not detract from an emerging nation on a positive trajectory.

Outsourcing of manufacturing to Bangladesh had benefitted the emerging country, providing work, improving wages and living standards. A plethora of statistics about economic growth, gross domestic product (“GDP”) per capita, nutrition, health life expectancy, education etc. highlighting development successes were cited. Product boycotts or mandatory improvements in working conditions would set back development resulting in far greater loss of life over time.

Proximate & Fundamental…

The proximate cause of the Rana Plaza collapse is relatively clear.

According to the police report, the original 2006 building approval was for a five-storey building, which was correctly designed and constructed. Subsequently, three more floors were added, with permission based on allegedly false documents. The extension overloaded the structure. Vibration from heavy generators used to provide standby electricity, essential in the sub-continent where there are power shortages and frequent outages, contributed to the collapse.

Warnings were disregarded. Large cracks, which appeared a day or so before the collapse, were inspected but not considered serious. An agreement to suspend production until an inspection by experts from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (“BUET”) could occur was ignored, to avoid production losses.

The fundamental causes are more complex.

In a globalised world, advances in technology and communication now allow each stage of production to be undertaken in the most efficient location. Businesses seek out competitively priced raw materials, labour and locations to lower costs, enhance profitability and ultimately offer reduced prices to consumers. In practice, production migrates to emerging markets, such as Bangladesh.

There is a race to the bottom in costs and working conditions, as emerging market manufacturers compete for the business of foreign purchasers. Everyone in the supply chain seeks to maximise market share and profitability, sometimes by cutting corners. In emerging markets, corruption and failures of government and business compound these pressures.

Lower costs come from lower wages. In Bangladesh, the minimum wage is US$38 a month with typical take-home pay around US$65, among the lowest rates in the world. Benefits, such as leave, retirement or health benefits, are lower, if they exist at all.

Lower costs also come from less stringent regulations governing workplace safety, industrial pollution and waste disposal. Developed countries have been content to outsource problems of environmental standards and workers’ rights to emerging countries.

Desperately poor and seeking improved living standards for its population, emerging countries embrace this model, which has been the first step in the development of nations in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Bangladesh is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with parallel improvement in several measures of social wellbeing such as child mortality. It is growing at about 5-6% per annum, based substantially on its successful garment industry and the remittances from Bangladeshi migrant workers, employed under frequently poor working conditions in richer Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

The garment industry generates over US$24 billion in revenue, employing about 3.5 million people, mainly young women, and is a major source of foreign currency.

Bangladesh must compete with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar for foreign clients. Continuous cost pressures and competition make this economic model difficult to sustain. Prices have decreased by 10-12% over the last 5 years. Return on investment in the garment trade has decreased from 50% to 20%, which is close to the cost of debt in Bangladesh, effectively around 15-20%. In turn, this drives further cost reduction measures.

The problems are compounded by Bangladeshi politics, dominated by two parties.

The first is the Awami League, associated with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who led the campaign for independence from West Pakistan’s military and political establishment. After his assassination in 1975, military regimes forced the party out of power, with its leaders and activists being executed or jailed. Sheikh Hasina, Rahman’s daughter, has headed the party since 1981. She has been Prime Minister since 2009, having also held the position earlier between 1996 and 2001.

The second party is the Bangladesh Nationalist party, associated with General Ziaur Rahman a member of the armed services which killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who seized power in a coup and was himself subsequently assassinated. The party has been led since 1981 by Khaleda Zia, the widow of General Ziaur, who led Bangladesh between 1991 and 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006.

The bitter personal history and rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia (known as the “battling begums”) creates an unstable and unpredictable political environment. Weak governments, under either party, habitually persecute opponents. Corruption, rent-seeking and poor administration is pervasive.

Non-government organizations (“NGOs”) complain that hundreds of millions of dollars from state banks and government contracts are unaccounted for. The World Bank withdrew support for a much needed US$2.9 billion bridge across the Padma (Ganges) River, citing corruption issues.

Bangladeshi building regulations are routinely not enforced. Many factories are located in buildings not intended for industrial use and set up without regulatory approval. According to a survey by BUET, up to 60% of all garment factories may be unsafe. Bangladeshi trade unions are also aggressively suppressed.

In this environment, the garment industry exerts significant influence. Some two dozen factory owners are members of parliament. Mohammad Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, had links to the Awami League and was a local leader of its youth wing. Mr. Rana, who faces charges over the collapse, allegedly used his influence to obtain approvals from the authorities, even though the building did not comply with standards.

Looking East…

None of this is new in emerging markets. Its origins lie in the colonial past.

Using superior military power and technology, European powers, such as England, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany, established and maintained colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The basic driver was cheap resources, labour (often in the form of slavery) and new markets for the colonizing nation’s products.

Colonialism fuelled the growth and prosperity of the old world. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was exultant at being able to buy pepper in the East Indies for 3 ducats a hundredweight from indigenous traders knowing they would fetch for 80 ducats in Venice.

Karl Marx approved: “the question is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton”. Whilst recognising that the exploitation of Indian markets and labour by the East India Company for commercial gain, Marx argued that capitalism would transform the subcontinent. India would benefit from the fruits of industrial revolution, such as improved communications and a free press. It was a sentiment worthy of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman who regarded the Victorian empire as “the greatest thing that ever happened to an undeserving world”.

Peter Whitfield writing in Travel: A Literary History identified the link between earthly power (wealth) and spiritual glory (Christianity) that provided the justification for colonial conquest:

It amounted to a theory of cultural destiny – that the European maritime nations were destined to bring Christianity and civilization to a pagan and savage world, and their reward was to be the wealth and riches which the indigenous populations themselves were incapable of appreciating and valuing.

Underlying colonialism was what Edward Said in 1978 termed: Orientalism. This was a reference to the patronizing attitude of Westerners towards Asian, Middle Eastern and African societies. They were seen as static and under developed, which a superior West could shape in accordance with its own image. This de-humanising and Europe centric view was recognized by George Orwell writing in 1939 about Marrakech:

When you walk through a town like this – two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in – when you see how the people live, and still more, how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon the fact. The people have brown faces – besides they have so many of them. Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees as coral insects? They arise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil.

Not Free at Midnight

Driven in part by the 1941 Atlantic Charter, many colonies gained independence after World War 2. In his landmark speech on 14 August 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru identified the transcendent hopes of an independent India as well as all former colonies:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

The reality proved different.

A combination of casual indifference and malicious design created nation states whose borders ignored important historical, ethnic, tribal, religious and economic differences. It set the stage for frequently violent sectarian conflict in a number of states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East which continues to this day. This impeded development, as political and economic resources were diverted to resolving differences.

Many lacked essential infrastructure, political and social institutions as well as skilled workers to administer the new states, often reflecting a lack of ‘nation building’ by the colonisers.

New found statehood changed but did not eliminate reliance on metropolitan countries, who did not, of course, offer recompense for sometimes centuries of looting or exploitation. Most remained dependent on the colonial power for capital, technology, skills and markets for their products. Developed nations carefully controlled innovation and intellectual property to capture a substantial share of any commerce.

The newly de-colonised world went through several semantic mutations – LDCs (less developed countries); NICs (Newly industrialised Countries); EM (emerging markets); and FM (frontier markets). As the world economy globalised, these nations progressively were forced to join the capitalist caravan train and travel a familiar road.

Initially, foreign investment drove growth as developed countries relocated production facilities utilising low cost local labour or set up facilities to exploit local resources. To foster development, international aid agencies and NGOs advised deregulation and sale of government owned businesses, local assets and business opportunities. Foreigners and favoured locals, sometimes in partnership, purchased assets, frequently at bargain prices and advantageous terms.

Living standards improved, especially for the fortunate and connected. Inequality increased as for the bulk of people there were only minimal improvements through the trickle down of wealth. A small middle class developed. Property and share prices generally rose quickly as capital flowed in attracted by tales of success. To varying degrees, cronyism and corruption increased.

Finally, local constraints, rising costs and demands for a greater share of development from the disadvantaged altered the dynamics. Costs rose to levels that made the economies uncompetitive. The capitalist caravan became restless, seeking newer cheaper locations. Whilst talking up the nation’s prospects especially to foreigners, smart locals shifted money to Switzerland, Luxembourg, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Governments talked bravely about “moving up the value chain”. Ambitious initiatives were launched – the world’s tallest building, the world’s longest building, a new port in a country which has no sea access, bridges over rivers between two cities that did not yet exist, entire new cities! Eventually, the country became mired in seemingly intractable economic, financial and political problems. In extreme cases, it collapsed or became totally dysfunctional.

Bangladesh’s history follows this familiar trajectory. The majority of Bangladeshis already are familiar with what Oscar Wilde identified in The Soul of Man Under Socialism; that capitalism lays upon men “the sordid necessity of living for others”.

Emerging nations, so the argument goes, can develop and rise out of their impoverishment through trade and foreign investment. But most of the trade involves supplying cheap resources, low cost labour and relies on poor environmental and workplace safeguards. For countries like Bangladesh producing cheap clothing for international markets to escape poverty always entailed a risky, uncertain and tragic future.

Much Ado About Death…

In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, despite a flurry of activity, little has changed.

A number of retailers, such Primark and C&A, a Dutch-German company, are involved in an argument with Walmart, Sears, Children’s Place and other American companies whose products were manufactured at Tazreen or Rana Plaza about long-term compensation for workers and their families.

Changes to working conditions and safety have been mooted. Under pressure, the Bangladesh Garment Makers and Exporters Association have agreed to measures to ensure the structural integrity of factories. Western firms are discussing improved working conditions, including funding for the work. But US firms have rejected the European plan, especially proposed dispute resolution and accountability mechanisms.

Following a petition about labour and safety standards from the AFL-CIO, the largest US union federation, the US suspended trade privileges for Bangladesh. The action was symbolic as the suspension from the so-called generalised system of preferences, a status that allows recipient countries to export some goods tariff-free, does not cover garments. The suspension only covers around US$35 million of US imports from Bangladesh which totals around US$5 billion.

The European Union, which purchases 60% of Bangladesh’s garment exports, threatened to restrict duty free access to the European market unless conditions for factory workers improved. But no action was taken because of the retailers’ accord and agreements between the ILO and the Bangladesh government.

Despite that fact that they are unlikely to be implemented or enforced, the garment industry has complained that the measures will be devastating, increasing costs and making Bangladesh uncompetitive globally. In reality, the Rana Plaza collapse or the attempts to improve working conditions has not affected Bangladeshi producers or the garment trade.

Total garment exports are increasing by as much as 15-16% per annum. Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest garment exporter by value after China, with shipments increasing by more than 500% in the past decade. The industry is likely to continue to expand further, reflecting increasing labour costs in China and Bangladesh’s combination of scale (it has 5,500 factories, about double its closest competitor), low wages and a large workforce with the right requisite skills.

For A Few Cents More…

Over the last 20 years, there have been significant efforts to improve safety in dangerous factories and workplaces in emerging countries, such as Bangladesh. Sadly, there has been limited progress and little can be expected.

The failure can be traced to financial considerations. To improve working conditions, costs will have to increase with the ultimate buyer paying higher prices or everyone in the supply chain -the manufacturers, importers, clothing companies and retailers involved- accepting lower profits.

The costs of improving safety in Bangladesh’s clothing factories to adequate levels is estimated at around $3 billion over a number of years, which would translate into only a few cents per garment. Consumers, business managers and shareholders seem unwilling to accept this outcome.

The Rana Plaza collapse caused public outrage, suggesting real resolve to implement appropriate standards. But the short attention span of the media and Western buyers has meant that the ethical purchasing campaigns, except amongst the most dedicated, have lost momentum. Surveys suggest that only around 10-15% of buyers are likely to enquire where garments were made. In reality, an even lower percentage would change their buying decision even if they were aware of the conditions under which the item was manufactured.

George Orwell was prescient when he wrote that “… we all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to set free; but our standard of living and hence our ‘enlightenment’ demands that robbery shall continue.”

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29 comments

  1. Clive

    I have a very mixed reaction to this piece.

    Let’s start with where I’m in broad agreement. Putting my socio-ethnic cards on the table, as the poster child of English white middle class fin-de-siècle post imperialism, I can wholeheartedly agree with Das’s observation that countries which prospered from Empire developed some particularly unwholesome attitudes to the countries which were, for want of a better word, exploited. And even up until my education in the 1970’s, such inherent superiority was still being taught, although it was implied rather than explicit. The funny brown people in far off places, indeed. And it was good, or at least so it seemed for us unenlightened, uncaring and deluded beneficiaries, while it lasted — having people live and die so we could live in relative luxury. It was of course gross and it had to stop.

    But here is where I diverge almost 100% from Das’s assessment. Most comfortable white what’s-left-of-the-middle class people that I know abhor the continuation of exploitation such as exhibited in the garment industry (as cited here in Bangladesh). We’re almost a parody unto ourselves, with our insistence on meticulously picking through the produce isle at Waitrose trying — in fear of becoming a pariah of (certainly Middle England) society lest we pick up inadvertently some non organic sustainable sourced bananas. Or being incapacitated by a neurotic episode in Marks and Spencer while on the horns of a dilemma about whether those shoes made in Turkey but not having a percentage of the profit put into a community are more acceptable than ones made in the Philippines where some of the till take funds hurricane relief programmes all the while bemoaning that you just can’t buy locally produced apparel any more and someone really should jolly well organise a march to smash capitalism because it’s absolutely rotten to the core. Before wondering where we can get a cup of fairly-traded organic coffee.

    So to sit there and have to read Das’s dredging up of near century old colonial grievances does, erm, grate a little. He is, in my opinion, getting rather confused between society’s behaviour and the consequences of a system which 99.99% of the population have absolutely no control over. If we did have control over it, things would be very different. Specifically here: Wall St / The City demands that retailers make 10% margins because (as Lambert would say) markets. Retailers that don’t make the numbers get their share prices hammered. CEOs that let their share prices get hammered don’t get to enjoy their multi million comp packages. So off they go, scouring the world for new sources of cheap labour. I don’t suppose there’s anyone reading this blog — why else are you here ? — who doesn’t think the whole thing is stinky and we want shot of it.

    So for Das to indulge in such generalised finger-wagging which I can’t help but think was aimed at me, the reader (and if he meant to wag his finger legitimately at our hopelessly exploitative financial system then I take it all back, but I’ve read and re-read his article and it doesn’t make that at all clear) is very annoying.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Clive,

      Your attitude towards shopping, I suspect, is common only in a socioeconomic cohort in England which does not constitute a majority. I have to tell you that in the US, that sentiment barely exists and even among people who make gestures, behavior is inconsistent. I have a sister-in-law, for instance, who eats super duper organic food. Among the cognoscenti, there are strata. You’ve got the organic co’s that have been bought by large food companies like General Mills, and those are sus unless proven otherwise. “Free range chicken” may merely mean they were fed GMO corn in an itty bitty enclosure. So you need to be a locavore or otherwise know your vendors. And the really serious healthy foodies not only avoid GMOs, they are into grass fed meats.

      That is a long winded way of saying she’s very vigilant on that front and goes to some effort to support sustainable agriculture. She would never shop an openly exploitative retailer like Walmart. But in her clothes and products shopping, she doesn’t pay much attention to country of origin, much the less favoring vendors who make an effort to source products on a “fair trade” basis.

      And he is right that it does not have to be that way. I’ve written occasionally about Costco, which is the anti-Walmart discounter. I believe you have to pay an annual membership. Costco sells discounted products, including food (generally large quantities, but very good quality, they are famous for their steaks). But they pay workers well. The result is less shrinkage (theft), less turnover (more costly than managers pretend) AND the store is the darling of the upper income cohort that wants cheaper prices but doesn’t want to exploit workers to get there. Those upper income types are bigger spenders on average.

      Wall Street consistently pressures the CEO to cut worker pay to improve margins (which are already better than anyone in that category). He tells them to bugger off, they don’t understand that this is an integrated strategy and crimping worker pay would only provide a temporary bump and would in the long run be self-defeating.

      1. Lord Koos

        As a Costco shopper, I can assure you that the “upper income cohort” of Costco’s customers is a minority, even in Seattle, which has plenty of millionaires. I’ve shopped at several different Costco stores in different parts of WA state and have always been struck by the diversity of the customers… immigrants are very well represented, for example.

      2. Foppe

        Yves:

        Your attitude towards shopping, I suspect, is common only in a socioeconomic cohort in England which does not constitute a majority. I have to tell you that in the US, that sentiment barely exists and even among people who make gestures, behavior is inconsistent.

        Agreed. Here in the Netherlands, the realization that all the big clothes chains are sourcing their clothes from factories where the working conditions are this appalling is still very new, and basically none of the big stores have really changed tack. Of course, they yammer on about how they’re working to ensure that factories won’t literally fall on top of people’s heads by 2025 (a made up number; you get the point), but it’s all about the PR. As for the demand side: I haven’t really heard anything about shoppers demanding exploitation-free/lite clothes, so I would say that ethical shopping is a fringe phenomenon at best. (Of course, it’s slightly different when it comes to food, but biological food is orders of magnitude more popular than fairtrade (biological) food, so there it’s mostly about personal health rather than about reducing farmhand pesticide intake..

  2. Robert Dudek

    The Bangladesh “success story” is why TINA to continued globalization, so say the overlords.

  3. craazyman

    It’s 5 a.m. Do you know where your mind is?

    I’m not sure. My upstairs neighbor has been banging around since 4 and I can’t sleep. Thuds and clunks on the bare wood floor. Dragging of objects. Footfalls back and forth down through the ceilinig. Laying in the dark here in the slums you lose your mind.

    Why do people act like this? Why do they abuse their neighbor? I’ve talked about this with the landlord and they refuse to do a thing. They say they can’t. The law prevents it. The neighbor doesn’t care. We spoke once and there’s a sanctimonious and defiant belief in their own natural right to move things around for hours at any time of day or night. It’s a form of psychopathology.

    Why do the heathen rage? Is it oppression by the white man? Before there was a white man there was oppression and rage. There were gradations and divisions and indoctrination and predations. What if the white man gets a tan? Does the math still work? Send in the marines and the missionaries. Or maybe the capitalists. Or maybe the humanists. Or the journalists. Or the communists. Call the police. Each wave crashes against the rocks. Each wave recedes to the sea. The rocks laugh, malevolent and insane. Why? That’s a hard question to answer.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I’m so sorry. I had a version of this yesterday but I won’t bore you with my story.

      You might need to break down and get over the ear noise canceling headphones. Of course, you being you, you might still be besieged by the psychic energy…..

  4. Christer Kamb

    The classic need of a G8(and WTO/ILO) multilateral agreement with Bangladesh-government and other low cost producers. Corruption and lobbying must be the cause no real reform is reached. Or just plain lack of political interest(or worse; no clue at all).

    1. Raghavan

      The problem with a ‘wto/ilo multilateral agreement with Bangladesh’ is that under the WTO dispute settlement system, a member-country govt affected by Bangladesh non-observance of its workers’ rights has to complain, engage in very costly litigation, and at the end if the case is won, there can be ‘retaliation’ against Bangladesh! But the exploitation (non-observance) is by the buyers and retailers in rich industrialized countries! Is Bangladesh or similarly country expected to complain, and say retaliate against the US and how? Merely including labour standards and workers’ rights in WTO does not help. And incidentally, US has not even ratified some of the basic ILO conventions, including right of workers to organise.

      1. Christer Kamb

        Raghavan; And now they(??) are negotiating the TPP behind closed doors! Real free trade has always been about extracting wealth from the “weakest”. So, what are the
        interest from the political front(governments in the west)? And who are really running the show?

        1. Raghavan

          Kamb: Your query is not clear to me. TPP and theTransatlantic ones are worse. Both cater to interests of Global Corporations, and US and EU who are promoting them, knowingly or unknowingly, will ultimately produce a global corporate state. The WTO and its predecessor long ago pronounced, that their real clients are the corporations – and the sect caters to their interests, more than public interest. A while ago Yves had a introduction to a guest post, referring to the interwar Italian experiment of the Corporate State, and its outcome. I think this is what she meant.

          But on Labour standards, unless WTO dispute settlement system is reformed, to enable calling to account, the corporations and their govts through collective sanctions, the remedy against the deplorable exploitation of workers does not lie via WTO. Alas, even the ILO, nor member govts and many NGOs are interested in this aspect of the problem. That was the only point I was trying to make.

  5. Arnold Lockshin

    It is silly to pretent that corporations are not going to exploit foreign workers to the utmost.

    1. washunate

      Well said. Business is just a creation of the state to organize resources for a particular purpose.

      If we want a different outcome, we have to change the public policy.

  6. allcoppedout

    I understood what Clive was saying and have met the people he describes. Oddly, I have no idea what Yves said in an apparent reply. We shopped at Costco though had no idea of the policies Yves describes and gave up in favour of our local market. Craazy resonates. We don’t want noisy neighbours (cops and other authorities were useless when drug-dealing child abusers moved in) and we’d like to stuff retailing altogether. We did an art trip to Rome last year and paid 8 Euros for coffee with a view of a fountain. The whole place was a tourist trap. Some Italians were revolting, so we joined a march. A family on the march shared their lunch with us. Lovely, some things are better than retailing.

    Das gets a lot right. Yet not far from me, a lot of garment retail is of shoplifted stuff purveyed by the same people selling drugs. There is a substantial stolen meat and grocery trade too. There are still sweat-shops here. The next-but-one soccer World Cup will be played in stadia built on a kafala system that has already killed 1200 workers – http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/2022-world-cup-qatar-accused-3303458

    I’ve seen South Asia and the Middle East up close. The situation is truly disgusting. I have no faith in any economics or quality of work life stuff I’ve taught in universities to fix any of this. Our system is riddle with shiny people in posh frocks and suits who have never done a real day’s work in their lives. I’m afraid they probably meet in Marks and Spencers and over free-trade coffee to impress each other with their care and concern.

    The ways to stop this involve extensive product marking and stopping competition through dismal wages dead. This is not a matter of economics done by posh people. They will just do something that leaves people starving because the work can be shifted to some shit hole not complying (this even happens between villages in Northern Pakistan). I disagree with Clive and Yves on ‘what we are’ in our ‘ethical concerns’. To actually have any ethics over this you need an actual grip on what is really happening. Spend four months at sea on a jack tuna boat or try and live for a year sewing in Bangladesh (brilliant beer in the Chittagong Railway Club) or living on the dole. Or be a slave – we still have 30 million of them.

    Economics and business needs turning on its head, both reformed to serve the interests of those doing the real work (and which should involve shiny people doing real work too). A few prats who can afford shops like M & S or even Costco are already the problem, not part of its resolution. We are no more than the ponces doing virtue ethics because the slave economy they lived on in Ancient Greece gave them time. I struggle to stay marginally polite. In parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan you can still pay for work with opium and heroin.

    I’d say wake up and smell the coffee, but given the way this is traded it should have the stench of death. There are no easy answers to any of this, but no economic answers at all. Remember the Triangle Waist fire Das mentions? How did we stop that kind of abuse? And tell me what kind of “scientific business studies” doesn’t teach that side of the equation?

    1. allcoppedout

      I now understand what Yves was saying, with the passing of the blurred eye of dawn. It would be interesting to see where the costs saved by lousy conditions, dismal wages, no pensions and the rest crop up off balance sheet. I think we know really and the answer is looting, poor health and a society 100 years behind where it should be.

      1. different clue

        One place they show up is in mass jobicide/nooveau poverty among the out-of-work classes in various Western countries, especially America. Which was particular goal of Forced Free Trade to begin with.

  7. Joseph Smythe

    I recall an excellent (I thought) opinion piece on Al Jazeera arguing for a global system of minimum wages taking into account local living costs in various countries which would ensure a decent standard of living while preserving cost advantageous for developing countrys

  8. John Mc

    I appreciate Das’ use of Orwell, Said, Wilde & Marx, especially after Michael Lewis’ omissions of yesterday. Nonetheless, this article came across as a “corporate fatalism” reminder in our global marketplace. I took it as a past, present, always will be kind of mentality meme.

    Maybe the point of “much ado about death” helps us uncover the pattern which allows these types of disaster to continue repeatedly (economic, social and colonizing contexts) with an initial horror and then back to work, but I read the garment worker’s reality: “the sordid necessity of living for others” as an inevitability, when it is clearly not. This is why I struggle with neoliberal economists — not enough imagining new possibilities nor knowing which of the great historians to quote. Try Tony Benn.

    Benn encouraged people to ask the powerful (influence change) 5 questions:

    1) What power do you have
    2) Where did you get it from
    3) In whose interest do you exercise it
    4) To whom are you are accountable
    5) How can we get rid you (its not democracy if they cannot be wrestled from power)

    When I consider this well-intentioned and personal article, I wonder if Das is using his power to remind rather than illuminate. Who is his audience for this article? And is a fatalistic tone warranted, given his own power to influence? Lastly, how can we rid ourselves of problem, “the sordid necessity of living for others”?

    I do not want to detract from the salient issue of worker safety and conditions, but Benn teaches us that if we can find ways to enslave people, then we can also find ways to alleviate their safety, dignity, and cycle of debt/poverty.

  9. Ric Can

    The costs of improving safety in Bangladesh’s clothing factories to adequate levels is estimated at around $3 billion over a number of years, which would translate into only a few cents per garment. Consumers, business managers and shareholders seem unwilling to accept this outcome.

    I’m sure even a “few cents” meet with intense resistance along the supply chain but couldn’t consumers be persuaded to pay a bit more to prevent buildings collapsing on young girls? That doesn’t seem like a tough “ask.” The way to do it would be to make the higher prices temporary – think “Schooner Tuna” in the movie Mr. Mom.

    Consumers will accept higher prices as long as they’re linked to a good cause. WM, Sears could run ads that tie-in temporary higher prices with saving young girl’s lives. Would it be tricky doing that while avoiding responsibility (or perception of responsibility) for any prior negligence? I don’t think it would be hard…that’s Madison Av’s raison d’être isn’t it?

    1. John Mc

      Interestingly, I am sure that is how the public felt in 1911 said after the Triangle ShirtWaist Factory Fire (123 women- mostly immigrant & 23 men). Renewed interest in public union participation followed. One wonders if that were to happen in Bangladesh, how quickly the bodies would pile up or the next group of people would sink into the earth (as Orwell depicts).

    2. TheCatSaid

      Just thinking out loud about what a single consumer could do–
      If I stood outside a retail store where I buy clothes with a clipboard, and asked people to sign if they’d be willing to pay a few extra cents per garment to enable better working conditions–if a few people did this from time to time, sent it to management, and took a photo for media (or better, alerted them ahead of time), something like this could add up. . .

      Sometimes simple things requiring almost no organizing can take on a life of their own.

      1. John Mc

        Agreed. But the “add up” mentality of incremental change almost invariably disguises what another poster mentioned earlier (mask of totalitarianism). And, I am not sure I want change to take a life of its own. We are at a point (one that Chris Hedges discusses) that every single institution that we have come to rely upon previously has been systematically corporatized. I want something that is well-planned, a direct hit on the neoliberal state, and provides hope/benefit to those who would not have had it otherwise (not a one-time feel good moment, though).

        Now, I realize you intended to show (quite rightly) that change can happen quickly, suddenly, when people act in small and big ways. No action is meaningless in this mentality. However, the colonialists only act when they have to (with a playbook that isolates the most effective strategy to continue exploiting profits). Until our responses take this into consideration, I wonder if we are trying to make ourselves feel better about not being a fascist in a totalitarian world.

        1. TheCatSaid

          It will be crucial to take ALL perspectives into consideration. Everyone will have to be part of the solution.

          The mistake would be to assume that we understand others at their core, when we are busy demonizing them.

          No matter how bad someone’s actions are, there can be positive possibilities if we are willing to understand ourself and others more deeply than we presently do. We can guarantee specific outcomes but there are infinite possibilities and not just the few options we tend to focus on.

          1. John Mc

            I appreciate the conversation here Thecatsaid, but I struggle more with your words than your meanings. We agree about Inclusion, humility, and possibilities beyond good and bad labels.

            Where I struggle with this is in two places: (a) many of the ideas are expressed in the language of exaggeration —–> always, never, everyone, all, none, nowhere etc… and (b) taking all perspectives into consideration is not something we do well (see consumer products or natural selection). In fact, we are much easier as a collective to co-opt or fragment.

  10. john c. halasz

    With respect to the Rana Plaza collapse and Bangladesh, Das misses a few facts. After the disaster, with elections up coming, the government raised the minimum wage by +75%, from $38 to $68, (an interesting move economically, insofar as it might both raise costs and decrease export demand, but also increase internal domestic demand). The estimate of what it would take to improve factory safety in Bangladesh is between $1.5 and $3 bn over 5 years. Given profit margins are very low in such a highly competitive SME sector, that’s probably between 50% and 100 % of total profits. And needless to say, those profits are not just to feather the nest of owners, but are at least a potential source of domestic re-investment.

    Das’ retrospective synoptic account of Western imperialism and colonialism is to be appreciated, but he offers a moralizing account based on individual consumer choice and price-sensitive behavior, rather than a more systematic and functional account of the economic “forces” and pressures involved.

  11. john c. halasz

    BTW before the Rana Plaza collapse, in the prior 7 years about 825 factory deaths from fires and collapses had been recorded, less than the 1141 from that one incident. The rate of factory deaths before would be about 3.3 per 100,000. The overall U.S. occupational death rate is 3.5 per 100,000. Some sense of proportionality is in order.

  12. Thomas M. McGovern

    Do you remember the “self-determination of peoples?” It used to be that Western meddling in the internal affairs of other countries was considered imperialistic. Why not now? It’s because “they” have taken “our” jobs. “We” resent “them” for doing so and we will tell them how to run their lives.

    How much were these people earning before Western companies hired the manufacturers who hired the people to do the manufacturing? Certainly less than they are earning now, otherwise the workers would not have taken the jobs. Less, perhaps, than American workers would be paid, but more than they made previously.

    If do-gooder American liberals are successful in their meddling, it will raise the costs of production. Factory owners will then buy robots and fire the human workers. What will the do-gooders do for the workers then?

    1. different clue

      Yes I remember self determination of peoples. It used to apply to the USAmerican people too.
      No more, since Free Trade. If we had staid Protectionist, our fellow Americans would be making our clothing at decent pay. They would use their decent pay to buy goods and services from their fellow Americans (us). That way we would be keeping eachother employed.

      The goal of the International Free Trade Conspiracy is to make America into the New Ukraine. If a few (or many) Bangladeshis have to die along the way, the Free Trade Conspirators consider it “worth it”. George Ball certainly would have approved.

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