The tragedy of the Bangladesh garment industry is becoming clearer as it affects the very people who brought it to the fore with hard work, skill and dogged perspicacity. These are the young women in a traditional society who went out of their homes and families to work. Relatively speaking, they expected to empower themselves by earning a steady and gainful income but in the long run were exploited and let down along the way.
The immediate reaction is to find the factory owners guilty. They erected shoddy buildings, paid inhumane wages and demanded much of the garment workers (dreadful working conditions for one). They are, but they are not the only ones and for me, they are not the most guilty.
We all concede that globalization is an economic phenomenon that cannot be stopped or ignored. That is a given. But it must be managed so that it benefits all, not just some countries who are richer, and a market that demands the lowest prices for what they want from the manufacturing end. Globalization has its dark side and I do hope that rational, compassionate people of goodwill realize that and move to mitigate or abolish it. The light of day must come to both sides of the globalization coin. Being the customer or client does not absolve one of culpability for the injustice to the supplier side, particularly the laborers who make the product.
Who are the beneficiaries of the low wages, poor working conditions and grave abuse of laborers? With extraordinary indifference, if not ultimately outright tolerance of the onerous factors involved in the production of goods, it is the First World. These are the entities that engage in outsourcing their manufacturing to Third World countries. Third World laborers are by any standard, even their own which are lower than the average First World standards, victims of developed nations’ business practices in outsourcing practices. Yet these developed nations’ business entities manage to act surprised and appalled when their attention is called or public disclosure is made that the factories and the workers who produce their goods are working in conditions way below the standards that even Third World countries should not be subjected to.
This is not to say that there has to be a standard wage rate for all countries, developed as against developing. It is only to say that while business can cut costs and earn profits when wages are lower outside their own countries, they must still be humanitarian wages in the context of the countries where they source their manufacturing.
In this context, the Bangladesh wages of $40 a month or a little over P1,600, for 30 full day’s work in long hours, abysmal working conditions, unsafe premises and onerous discipline (locked doors, etc) are clearly inhuman. Previously, fires have broken out in these garment factories causing an unconscionable loss of life, not only from the lack of safetly measures (fire drills, fire extinguishers, carelessness with inflammable materials) but also from locked doors and the indifference to the value of human life that it signifies.
The case of the toy factories in China is instructive. Because of lower wages, availability of labor and organized business agreements between Chinese factories and Western buyers, China has become the source of many of the world’s toys. The Western world, finding it economical if not cheap, developed China to be the world’s toy factory Yet, these very clients, probably in competing with each other, brought the whole toy industry in China down by consistently striving to drive prices of goods they ordered down, using the lure of bigger and bigger volume or orders if already cheap, giveaway prices were cut further.
Faced with competitors who acceded, most if not all Chinese toy manufacturers lowered prices for the toys beyond cheap, virtually at a loss or very close to it. Naturally corners had to be cut and standards for materials had somehow to be lowered to make some kind of a profit out of the cheap prices they were subjected to. The result was to continue to make a decent profit or one that they had been accustomed to in the past before prices were lowered, materials, labor and all other inputs had to be cut down. Thus, we have the deplorable cases of poisonous, harm-inducing toys that created waves of condemnation from the developed countries and for which to protect their image, they made a show of not being complicit by immediately cutting off the business ties with the erring manufacturers and abruptly moving somewhere else, to another country. They make no attempt to repair the damage, clean up the mess, correct the mistakes. Suddenly they abandon their associates, desert the laborers and fail to encourage or demand improvement or progress from their original suppliers’ factories or ways of dealing with laborers. As clients who demand lower and lower prices, they could certainly demand better standards of manufacture, including better treatment of laborers. But mostly they just up and leave and go somewhere else as though having nothing to do with what happened, i.e. the fires because of unsafe conditions and harsh labor discipline, the inhuman wage scale, collapsing buildings because of poor workmanship and skimping on costs. Suddenly they say they had not a clue and are therefore not one whit responsible for the mess they leave left behind.
The whole situation is much more complex than it looks and must be approached with common sense, an understanding of each country’s standard of living and a balance of interests between client and supplier. Can they come to a reasonable and fair deal not just for themselves but for the laborers? With goodwill and compassion, yes. But sometimes we have both of these qualities conspicuously absent.
Not a few years back, Nike was accused of manufacturing sneakers using child labor and low wages in Indoneisa. Fearful of public opprobrium and uncaring about the people they were working with, they just up and left, closing factories and leaving people unemployed.
The truth is in the context of the country their wages were decent enough compared to unemployment. Their use of youth labor meant, in the context of the country, a decent job for unemployed, unschooled and formerly unskilled youth. They could have clarified those circumstances with both their critics and their associates.and even striven to improve them to achieve more decent standards. Instead, they just folded their tents and left, managing to make matters worse.. It was the easy way out, a publicty stunt to demonstrate innocence, a seemingly righteous movet to silence critics. The consequences to the abandoned are lethal.
Disney has just disavowed Bangladesh and other countries after profiting from their labor and their cheaper working conditions for some time. Wouldn’t the better way have been improving the conditions and carrying on from there? That would have been positive and commendable and the decent thing, rather than closing shop while piously saying they were not part of the mess.
That is the dark side of globalization—a detachment from the labor world of another country, an insensitivity to less than humanitarian conditions when they prevail among suppliers, a judgmental stance taken after the fact that blames one side and takes no responsibility for one’s own participation on the other side.
So, now Bangladesh whose garment industry was a source of income, empowerment of women and economic progress for its country, is abandoned and condemned by the very people and entities who long benefited from it.
Is this not to be blamed on globalization with no thought to individual and humanitarian responsibility?