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On Bangladesh’s Textile Disasters

2013 May 12
by Ian Welsh

My father worked in Bangladesh for 8 years in the 80s, and in East Pakistan (what Bangladesh was called pre-independence) in the 50s.  I have relatives who live in India, and I spent my summers and many Christmas vacations in Bangladesh.  My mother spoke fluent Hindi (though that isn’t the language spoken in Bangladesh) as she grew up in Darjeeling and Calcutta.

Let’s run through the points.

The first is the simplest: I find it interesting that there is so much textile manufacture in Bangladesh. There was none to speak of in the 80s.  Let me put it crudely, Bangladesh is way down the chain, there are very few poorer, more corrupt countries in the world outside of Africa.  The textile industry is running out of cheap places to make clothes if they’re in Bangladesh.

The second is this: Bangladesh’s government will never enforce safety regulations in the textile industry. It is impossible, it will not happen.  Nothing happens, nothing gets done in Bangladesh without baksheesh—bribes.  Bribes are the actual salary of government employees, they are not paid enough to live decently on without them.  Textile factories will be throwing off so much money, in Bangladeshi terms, that virtually anyone can be bought, and with so much money at stake, anyone who can’t be bought will be otherwise dealt with.

Which means that if textile manufacturing jobs are to made safer it must be done by the companies buying the textiles, like Joe Fresh.  Only they can do it, because they control the money spigot. If unsafe work circumstances will cost the people running the factories money, they will fix it, assuming that the audits are thorough and rigorous, by incorruptible people.  Those people will have to be outsiders (outsiders aren’t necessarily incorruptible, but locals can be gotten to too easily) though they will need local fixers on staff.

My prediction is that some nominal steps will be taken, but only nominal ones. You don’t do textile manufacture in a country like Bangladesh because you want safe, you do it because you want cheap.  Really, really cheap.  Bet on the big headline disasters being only the tip of the iceberg, with routine maimings and horrible work conditions being part of the daily life of the workers.

All that said, if you live in Bangladesh, odds are you have no options.  These jobs may be horrible but they are jobs, and pay better than most of your other options.  That’s why the textile companies are there, no one who has other options would work in their hellhole sweatshops.

Ultimately that comes back to us and our corporate leaders.  We want cheap clothes, they want outsize profits (they don’t pass most of the “cost savings” on.)  If you aren’t dirt poor yourself, I suggest you look at the label, and if it’s made in a third world country (including China), don’t buy it.  It’s not much, but it’s about as much as you can do.  And, generally speaking the quality of clothes will be better.

If you really want to do something about this, tie work safety to allowing clothes made in such countries to be imported to developed nations, and have the inspectors be government employees of the country where the clothes will be exported.  That goes against everything our current government and corporate leaders are willing to do, however, and also offends the sensibilities of many on the left  so just get used to the fact that a lot of blood stains your clothes, just like lots of blood is mixed in to your oil and is used to fertilize your food.

24 Responses
  1. May 12, 2013

    Well, the UN’s International Labor Organization agrees with you:

    The tripartite partners and the ILO acknowledge that the challenges are daunting but believe that, if international buyers and brands take increased responsibility for improving working conditions and safety and health and with the active support of development partners and donors, safety can and must be improved in all workplaces throughout Bangladesh.

    They’ve said it. Now we have to make them do it.

  2. jcapan permalink
    May 12, 2013

    The problem is the rapacious vultures of globalization will simply move elsewhere. Lost in the nationalist cock jousting last year between my adopted homeland and China was the fact that strikes against Japanese firms often succeeded in extracting large concessions and that wages have seen pretty dramatic increases in recent years. As a result, there’s a huge wave of J-manufacturers moving their operations to Vietnam, among other lower-cost destinations.

    So, as Ian indicates, any consciousness raising should be broad-based. While Bangladesh is among the most hellish places to find employment, there are many more around the globe and our attention span is notoriously brief. Shaming the corporate overlords also would be sweet, say splashing them in the blood of swine. Ditto the dumb gits walking out of their low-cost store of choice. It’s an 18 billion $/year industry in Bangladesh–wherever are all those profits going, I wonder.

  3. May 12, 2013

    FWIW, I’ve been seeing “made in Bangladesh” and “made in Pakistan” in my shirt collars since the late 80′s. In the last 10 years, that’s about all I see, whether at Old Navy or in the more high end department stores. Don’t see much of the other Asian countries represented anymore, to the point where I can’t remember who the big ones used to be very definitively (Thailand? Vietnam? Filipines?)

  4. Ian Welsh permalink*
    May 13, 2013

    Really? Haven’t seen made in Bangladesh much, though I have seen made in India. Made in China is still most common. Maybe they moved in just around the time my father was leaving, 87/88.

  5. May 13, 2013

    Want to restore our economy and solve unemployment? Establish a definition of “free trade” that says, “When your workers work and live in conditions equal to ours then you can ship goods to our country. Until then nothing made in your country crosses our borders.” And then, of course, enforce it.

  6. Celsius 233 permalink
    May 13, 2013

    @ guest and Ian;

    Thailand is still very much in clothing and now Burma is an emerging manufacturer/exporter since the recent rapprochement with the west.

  7. nihil obstet permalink
    May 13, 2013

    That goes against everything our current government and corporate leaders are willing to do, however, and also offends the sensibilities of many on the left.

    At the risk of revealing excessive ignorance or tribalism on my part, what’s the offense to many on the left, and who are some of these many?

  8. Ian Welsh permalink*
    May 13, 2013

    Having agents of a foreign government inspecting facilities in a third world country? Stating that locals can’t be trusted to be incorruptible? Can you say “white man’s burden” or “imperialism” or “racism”.

  9. nihil obstet permalink
    May 13, 2013

    OK, I can see that a coercive international force fanning out for inspections willy nilly throughout the third world would be offensive, but I wouldn’t think that verification of compliance with trade treaties requiring that facilities meet certain standards would be considered imperialism.

  10. May 13, 2013

    It looks like there is actually going to be some action:H&M signs onto Bangladesh safety agreement as government plans minimum wage increase. May action continue.

  11. Carol Newquist permalink
    May 14, 2013

    This kind of thing shows the utter hypocrisy of Progressives and Liberals. NeoLiberalism is an abomination. It’s true purpose has been exposed for all to see, but here come the reformists who want to make it NeoLiberalism Light. Sorry, no dice. There is no “Light” in this equation. That’s just lipstick on a rotting pig.

    jcapan has it right. If the production cost arbitrage is no longer advantageous, the manufacturers will just move to the next lowest bidder, and there seems to be no lack of them. Liberals and Progressives fail to address the core of this issue. Global trade is unsustainable at these population numbers, which actually makes any discussions of continual global trade and reform of that process rather irrelevant. How long do some of you think this craziness can continue? Seriously? Do you really believe, in your heart of hearts, that every person on earth can have your lifestyle? If you do, you’re certifiably insane.

    http://www.viewzone.com/sixteenships.html

    If you have ever driven behind a large diesel truck you have experienced the oily smell and the thick black smoke that leaves the air a brownish color. It’s easy to see the cumulative effect of this exhaust on a busy highway. But there’s something much worse out there — cargo ships!

    Almost everything bought in America is made in Asia. This requires a constant procession of cargo ships crossing the oceans of the world. Some of these cargo ships are huge — a quarter mile long — and they have engines in them as big as a house [below].

    As ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars put together!

    These super-vessels use as much fuel as small power stations, but unlike power stations, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel — the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.

  12. john c. halasz permalink
    May 14, 2013

    Nah. You aren’t getting at the underlying structural problem of corporate sponsored globalization/”free trade”. So long as 1st world currencies are over-valued and 3rd world currencies are under-valued, the FX arbitrage opportunities will always produce greater profits/rents than improvements in real productive investment. For a country like Bangladesh, the low value of its currency compared to PPP means that it’s labor must always be worked harder to earn scarce FX to finance needed imports and capital goods, while capital goods will always be relatively more expensive, re-enforcing the substitution of cheap labor for expensive capital, whereas for MNCs, which control market access between countries, the imported capital expense will be relatively cheap, compared to the expense of their marketing networks in the 1st world, leading to “savings” on the capital/labor ratio at the production end, (which isn’t simply determined by low wages, but also by overall infrastructure and by regulatory “forbearances”.)

    Which means that 3rd world countries also end up with having very little control over their domestic economic policies, fiscal, monetary and regulatory, by which to launch any developmental strategy.

  13. Ian Welsh permalink*
    May 14, 2013

    I’ve discussed such issues in other posts in the past.

  14. Carol Newquist permalink
    May 15, 2013

    John, yes that is true, what you say is what makes NeoLiberlism so attractive, and some would say it’s part of its purpose. Considering that, nothing is going to fundamentally change from an applied policy standpoint. The only thing that will change this equation is when resource restrictions become so onerous as to eliminate any upside from the arbitrage. The question is, when will that happen? For example, at what price point of oil/gas does this mechanism collapse, and long-range transport is no longer feasible, especially considering the increases in standards of living around the globe and the attendant burgeoning demand? On top of that, consider the effects of Climate Change on exhausting and exhausted resources, and we quickly see that this is not tenable in the long run, maybe even the short-term. So, at what date do we see the beginning of the end of it, and at what date do we see the end of it almost entirely except for the one-tenth of one percent who will always have whatever they want whenever they want it until civilization is no more? Any takers?

  15. David Kowalski permalink
    May 15, 2013

    It has become hard to buy things made in the first world. Especially if a lot of the clothes items you buy are from on line merchants.

    Nearly all my clothes bought up through the 1990′s was made in first world countries., mostly the U.S. but also Italy, Canada, and the UK. Today, nearly everything is made in some third world country despite having well known US and European brand names.

    Levis are made in Mexico. Nike (US company) , Adididas (German), Salomon(French) are all made in the third world. I can’t tell from the dress shoes where they were made (not a good sign and the current shoes are made in Brazil and Mexico). Even expensive brands like Tommy Bahama are made in China. LL Bean makes stuff in a variety of third world sites. I have flannel shirts from El Salvador, turtle necks from China, and knit shirts from Peru. The catalog identifies a small number of items made in the USA but doesn’t list the site of manufacture for most goods.

    Just ten or fifteen years ago the way to buy first world goods was to purchase from small, independent local stores. They generally stocked goods made in the US, Canada or Europe and it was clear where the items were made. Try finding these little men’s stores these days or the old line brands they used to stock.

    I know several people who were in the industry and tried to make a living with first world goods. None of them made it. One was a private label manufacturer. he moved from Chicago to Georgia and finally Italy. All good quality and all first world. Finally he was pressured by his major customer, Nordstrom’s, to move manufacturing to China. Nordstrom already had a 100% markup on his products. The Chinese squeezed him out and dealt direct with Nordstrom. He’s out of the clothing business. Another worked for a well known manufactuer. A third owned one of the small men’s stores. The other stories are similar and everybody is out of the clothing business.

    Simply requiring a clear statement of where the product is made even on line would be an improvement. Having a “fair trade” movement similar to coffee would also help to differentiate which companies make at least minimal effdorts to police their manufacturing.

  16. May 15, 2013

    Well, looks like there’s a bit of a problem here…

    American companies, led by Walmart and Gap, lag on Bangladesh safety plan (Laura Clawson) The Gap’s response is creepy, but Walmart, of course, is the real problem—they are so big. According to Clawson:

    Walmart announced a new safety plan. Not the one that international labor groups have been pushing for and at least 10 major retailers have signed onto, though. No, this will be a special Walmart-only plan, and Walmart totally promises it’ll be better than that other one. Even though the Walmart plan is voluntary, self-administered, and doesn’t actually help pay for safety improvements. Just trust them!

    Without the force of law I don’t see how the industry can be made to comply.

  17. Celsius 233 permalink
    May 15, 2013

    The Beast will be fed. That’s a given.
    We, the powerless, still have choices; boycott.
    It’s a proven method of change; it’s action through inaction.

  18. Carol Newquist permalink
    May 16, 2013

    Without the force of law I don’t see how the industry can be made to comply.

    Is that the same force of law that will now require that everyone, including the poor and destitute, pay exorbitant insurance premiums or else face certain economic death?

    The State is corrupted and corruptible, and yet you want to give it even more power. Has it not proven to you yet, that any power you give it, it uses it for destructive purposes, and not for the common good?

  19. Celsius 233 permalink
    May 17, 2013

    Did ya ever get the feeling nobody gives a bloody fuck?
    This points to other things not being taken care of…
    And the apathy; the damned apathy; the disease spread across the US of A.

  20. Celsius 233 permalink
    May 17, 2013

    …and MFI is correct; apathy is the worst…

  21. Carol Newquist permalink
    May 17, 2013

    …and MFI is correct; apathy is the worst…

    No, mfi is not correct, apathy is not the worst. Apathy, at least, is neutral, whereas incorrectly applied action can actually make things worse rather than leading to a proper solution/direction because it doesn’t address the root of the problems. Right Wingers care just the same as Left Wingers, yet you don’t agree with their diagnosis and prescription. They’re not apathetic. They’re not neutral. They activate for solutions based on their diagnosis and who here would disagree that their diagnosis and prescriptions are destructive and will actually make things worse, not better? What Left Wingers fail to realize is the same applies to them, they just think they care more, and believe their diagnosis is the correct one, and their prescriptions will do the trick. Considering that, apathy is not the worst, and nor is it ideal.

  22. May 17, 2013

    More O/T cheer for the thread. I bring you Paul Craig Roberts:

    It Has Happened Here

  23. amspirnational permalink
    May 17, 2013

    Yes, but Carol Newquist, it can be argued that activist polarization on both or all sides
    could lead to a good resolution sooner than pervasive apathy.

  24. Carol Newquist permalink
    May 18, 2013

    Yes, but Carol Newquist, it can be argued that activist polarization on both or all sides
    could lead to a good resolution sooner than pervasive apathy.

    That’s true, but the operative word is “could”. “Could not” also easily fits that sentence, or even “can sometimes”, or “can sometimes not”. The point being that it’s not a sure bet just as the absolutist statement that “apathy is the worst” is not a sure bet. There are approximately six million Jews who no doubt would have preferred Hitler and his Brown Shirts chose apathy over activism, but that is not to say that all activism fails all the time, it is to say that it’s not a sure bet, but rather a roll of the dice. It’s more complex than absolutism allows.

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