This is the key problem: I don’t see who’s making the “choice” to ignore the basic safety of workers except for the rapacious employer and, by extension, the companies using his exploitative services while looking the other way. This certainly wasn’t the choice of the Bangladeshi state, since the practices of the factory that lead to the deadly collapse were illegal. The workers made a “choice” put their lives at risk in conditions that were known to be appallingly unsafe only according to the kind of logic that led hack Gilded Age jurists to conclude that minimum wage and maximum hours violated the due process rights of not only employers but of workers. The argument for greater intervention on the part of richer liberal democracies to enforce tougher labor standards is not an argument that we should be imposing “our” values on Bangladeshi citizens who don’t value worker safety the way we do. It’s argument that we should be using the greater enforcement capacity and leverage of richer liberal democratic states to enforce values that all evidence suggests are shared between richer and poorer nations.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about a comment of Matthew Yglesias, the business and economics correspondent for Slate.com. He wrote a piece Wednesday called "Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That’s OK." He wrote, quote, "Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer," unquote. Your response, each of you, before we go to break?
KALPONA AKTER: OK. My response is, in Bangladesh, we really have—we already have some rules and regulation for safety which is not complied, because these factory owners are so strong. Ten percent of our legislators, of them, are the factory owners. So, literally, these laws doesn’t work, which is the reason that we are calling all these retailers to sign the legally binding Bangladeshi—for the Bangladeshi garment factories to sign the fire and building safety code agreement, which already been signed by PVH, like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and also Tchibo from Italy. I know there is differences in terms of the rules and regulation between U.S. and Bangladesh, which is OK. But, you know, whatever rules and regulation we have, that has to be complied.
There’s also the issue of democracy and choice. What are workers actually choosing when they make these theoretical choices to enter the plant? They choice many tried to make was not to work in unsafe conditions. They were threatened with severe pay loss that placed their families’ already precarious economic system in even more danger. Bangladeshi workers have tried to organize into unions. What happened? Their organizers were murdered. The building is owned by a local political elite. What chance did workers have to create change? Workers try to make choices. Those choices are denied them by an international corporate-political alliance. The choices are made for workers by Wal-Mart, by their corrupt elites, by the bullet from a police officer’s gun.
So why don't companies do it, if it's so cheap?
I think, at that level, the competition is so fierce that there is a collective action problem where the owners aren't willing to bear even the smallest costs. There's also a collective action problem on the other side, with the buyers, who are looking for the cheapest possible price for the product and aren't willing to raise that price a bit if their competitors aren't. It feeds into a vicious cycle. That's why I think you need some kind of external intervention in terms of unions, technical assistance for a stronger inspectorate, a stronger ILO, as, on their own, the companies aren't going to be able to overcome that competitive collective action problem.
Is there a difference in the character of complaints depending of who's making them? Are the unions more concerned with protecting U.S. industries?
Obviously it's hard to draw out very much statistically, but we tried to do an assessment as to whether there was a positive outcome in each of these cases. There might have been somewhat more likelihood of getting a positive outcome if the petitioner was a human rights group than a union, but we also had a second finding which we think explains that: technical standards around wages or safety were more likely to see improvement than cases around freedom of association, which were more likely to be brought by unions but also politically more difficult for developing companies to address. By contrast, they can raise the minimum wage pretty easily to get the U.S. off their back.
Just to circle back, you said it's easy for these countries to raise their minimum wage. What level do those minimums tend to be at?
Bangladesh is barely over a dollar a day. The number I saw was $37 a month, but it's a very poor country. It's going to vary very widely.
The thing about it is in other export sectors, the wages tend to be higher than the minimum, if there is a legal minimum, and than the prevailing wage. It really is in apparel, where labor is such a big part of the costs, that they tend to be very very low. There's a paper by Anne Harrison on Indonesia, which was one of the countries back in the 90s that was targeted by the sweatshop activists. It was targeted by one of these GSP cases and raised their minimum wage, and Harrison found this external pressure did appear to contribute to raising conditions and did not appear to increase unemployment or decrease exports.
What exactly do the ILO standards expect of countries? It's not like they're asking for a $9 an hour minimum wage or something in Bangladesh, but what are they asking for?
That's one of the points that I wanted to make having read the Slate piece. It's a little bit tricky having talked about health and safety, but there's a distinction between core and cash standards. The idea is that core standards like freedom of association, nondiscrimination, child labor, or forced labor are both fundamental rights, and they're also framework rights in terms of having a well-functioning rule of law system in place for your economy. Those rights they can vary in the details but, and this is what the 1998 ILO declaration said, all countries, regardless of level of development, should respect these core rights.
Then you have all these other standards like health and safety, like wages, that will necessarily differ by a country's level of development and, as Matt Yglesias says, by their choices. I wouldn't go so far as Yglesias to say that therefore it's only up to them. In a lot of these cases the workers aren't making a fully informed choice to take these risks. They don't know the chemicals are toxic. They don't know that the building's unsafe. These still need to be addressed and the question is "How do you do that?"
To me, what Yglesias said constitutes no-bullshit sociopathy, and in fact racist sociopathy, as "Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That's Okay" is the way that decent, Harvard-educated types say that some human lives are worth less than other human lives, based on their race and country of origin. To me, it's clear that if that was published on National Review's The Corner, there would be dozens of anguished blog posts and essays calling them out, Chris Hayes would lead with it on his show, The Atlantic would publish a piece asking if Republicans are beyond saving, etc.
The fact that, instead, so many are defending him suggests that there literally is no line whatsoever once you're in, that Yglesias could dig up and re-murder Medgar Evers and if Jacob Bacharach criticized him, the Tweeters would complain about it being ad hominem. But, then, you've heard that argument from me before, and those self-same people make fun of me about it, and so I guess I'm a little silly. I write silly things, sometimes. Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias sometimes writes pieces where he justifies the conditions that kill hundreds of people through explicit reference to their national difference.
There is a certain type of manchild to whom pseudointellectual contrarianism that allows one to feel as if they are the cool reasoned intellectual in a discussion has an irresistible appeal.
Here's what I did. I read a guy who pivoted from the tragedy to a call for the US government or US consumers to try to impose US safety standards on all US-supplying factories around the world. I did not have detailed information about the situation in Bangladesh, but I did—and continue to—have good reason to believe that this call was mistaken. So I wrote a post trying to outline why I think it's appropriate for rich countries to have more stringent standards than poor ones, and I absolutely stand by that conclusion.
But at a certain point as a writer if you feel like everyone's misreading you, you have to consider the possibility that you've miswritten (thanks to Kendall Clark for making the point). I wanted to write about something I know about (the sound basis for globally differentiated regulatory regimes) and people wanted to read about the news (a scandalous breakdown of Bangladeshi law and basic concepts of informed consent) and mixing them up has done no good.
This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States.
I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory.
Why did most workers reluctantly return to the building despite the dangers? The industry pays probably the lowest industrial wages in the world. Most were owed several weeks wage arrears and were threatened with the sack if they refused to return. Once workers are sacked it becomes difficult to recover unpaid wages – this is a one of the most common sources of conflict in the garment industry. Some workers were also routinely docked three day’s wages for missing a day’s work.
In contrast, the management of a local bank branch housed in the ground floor shopping mall had taken note of the safety concerns and evacuated the branch, so avoiding injuries.
As survivors came to and began to speak out, they reported that management personnel had ignored recommendations by engineers to keep factories shut on April 24, going so far as to threaten workers with dismissal if they failed to report for duty as usual.
« Older How did Lockheed move the A-12 from the Skunk Work... | "It is the trend that robots w... Newer »
This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments
Buy a Shirt