The garment factory collapse in Bangladesh this past week was absolutely horrific. There have been 380 reported deaths, with many more still unaccounted for. Since the incident, there has been outrage by the masses in Bangladesh, and the factory owner — as well as others — have finally been arrested. Unfortunately, this does not assume enough accountability and does not decrease the chance of such an event occurring again.
This is a systemic issue and the entire culture surrounding manufacturing standards needs to change from top to bottom. The government and industry in Bangladesh need to take the leadership role, but any change must also include North America, as we are major stakeholders.
The answer is not shutting down those factories, which are directly producing clothes that we buy every day. Nor should we strive to equalize the level of workplace quality compared to American factories. That is not realistic and would put Bangladesh’s economic development at risk. Undoubtedly, one of its current comparative economic advantages is cheap labor, and its factories and the country depend on this, as 80 percent of the nation’s exports are now from the garment industry. It has been a critical factor in igniting amazing economic progress, including the country’s highest growth rates, liberating nearly 3 million people from being bound to subsistence farming, and doubling minimum wages in cities from 2006 levels. This type of development has been a starting point for various higher-income countries, and it will continue to keep Bangladesh on the path towards high-skilled industries and jobs. This is not an opinion — this is history and the numbers talking. However, the loss of hundreds of lives need not be a necessary evil on this path. Multinational corporations and governments around the world still have the ability to improve very poor working conditions without forcing labor costs to rise by any discernable amount in Bangladesh or anywhere else. Additionally, multinational corporations need to employ comprehensive checks for all the factories they employ immediately. These checks are estimated to cost $500,000 per year for a company in Bangladesh, an amount that is pocket change for corporations that
outsource production overseas.
Governments can also take a further step by reducing the unnecessarily high tariffs put on goods coming from countries like Bangladesh. They are forcing factories to cut corners as a way to be competitive. As for us, people have shown the ability to make change, even on international worker rights, when governments and companies have shown inability to take action on their own terms. Whether it’s through our purchasing power or our voice, we must be the strongest advocates possible. Let’s forget the obvious and huge humanitarian cause for a minute and look in our closets — we are the ultimate consumers, and this is our responsibility as well.
A version of this article appeared in Tuesday, April 30 print edition. Shamir Tanna is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]