Getting Real about Bangladeshi Factories

My colleague at Oxford, Steve New, has a Harvard Business Review blog today about the steps that can be taken to improve conditions in Bangladeshi factories.  I was also pleased to be quoted by BBC on the topic late last week, though the story was a bit inarticulate (just a listing of decontextualized, unedited quotes, a bit embarrassing).

But I remain concerned that the outpouring about this problem is still not putting the onus on the right parties, not recognizing the concrete conditions we are dealing with on the ground.

Please consider the following comparison.  In my building, there are many workers. Some of us have Ph.Ds.  Some of us don’t speak English.  Some of us make quite a bit of money, some of us make very little.  Some of us are seen to be not-quite-irreplaceable, but rather more core to the institutional mission than others. Nevertheless, all of us have an equal right to quick egress in the event of a fire.  This equal right is not just lip service, but is enforced by a never-ending list of building codes and a regular parade of safety and fire inspectors, as well as being carefully maintained by a permanent staff whose responsibility it is to be sure that if, at any given moment, a disaster occurred, everyone could get out safely.

This workplace safety ethic and the regulatory infrastructure–as well as the building capabilities–have taken about 150 years to evolve to this point in Great Britain.  And the same is true in the US, as well as in Western Europe.

Now please try to imagine a country without a similar infrastructure of building codes, fire regulations, and safety drills, as well as fire marshals and safety inspectors to enforce them.  Weave in some very unsavory things like a propensity to corruption and a general feeling that women (who are the workers in garment factories) are just not worth very much, regardless of what they are being paid. Consider also that a good many of the women are runaways whose families do not even know where they are (and who don’t want their families to know where they are).  Factor in that there isn’t yet much of a labor movement.  And that the factories themselves spring up and close down very quickly, often in crowded slums without addresses or signposts.

Now try to imagine a foreign retailer trying to police safety in these factories from a distance of thousands of miles, pressured by consumers who have no appreciation whatsoever for how very different their own expectations are from local practices and values.  How realistic is it to expect pressure from the brands who sell the clothing (but make the garments only by contract) to effect meaningful change all on their own?

In my opinion, it is naive to expect that an unfocused outcry against retailers is, by itself, going to solve this problem.  The much more precise and effective pressure would be upon the government of Bangladesh and the local manufacturers who actually own the factories and hire the workers.

The global brands are sensitive to consumer pressure, that is for sure.  But if they can’t make the locals sit up and behave responsibly, their most likely next step is to move to another country.  And that leaves a lot of people out of work.

In the process, though, both the local manufacturers and the government would lose a substantial income. So, the retailers need to be our representatives on the ground–in much the same way that our diplomats should be representing us on this issue–but it makes no sense whatsoever to merely turn them into a convenient whipping boy.  (Definition of a “whipping boy”:  someone who is punished in the place of the actual wrong-doer.)

This issue in Bangladesh is not “all about us.”  Hard to believe, I know.  But there are real adults with actual power on the ground who really don’t care about the safety of their employees and whose feet need to be held to the fire until they comply.  Walmart and Primark can do some of this job, but they cannot do it alone.  They need the support of the international community–governments, consumer agencies, unions, women’s groups–to get it done.

To the degree that Steve New’s idea of communicating provenance can help to put pressure on Bangladesh to institute and maintain acceptable safety standards, such measures would be well-taken.  To the degree that such provenance marks merely misplace blame, workers will continue to be unsafe in the factories of Bangladesh.

Steve dismisses the idea of ethical labeling (and, in general, I agree with him that these things have become pretty silly), but I think he is missing the point that I made in my last blog on the topic.  I reported that a garment manufacturer I know in Sri Lanka, MAS Holdings, tried to develop an ethical label for clothes in hopes of winning the loyalty of Western consumers.  The reason behind such an action speaks as much to conditions on the ground as it does to the razzle-dazzle of Western marketing and, in light of the recent disasters in Bangladesh, it is important to understand why that is so.

In both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, there are many companies producing garments and most of them do so as contractors for major brands in the West, such as Gap or Walmart or Marks & Spencer or Primark.  These local manufacturers, as long as they can sell to the big buyers, often do not care much about the safety of their employees. Thus, it is hard for a single manufacturer in such a country to build a consensus to, say, set safety standards for workers or a minimum wage.  Trying to develop an ethical label is one way to at least get some credit for the steps manufacturers like MAS have taken toward a better working environment.  If the rest of the country won’t go along with them, that is really the only step that can be taken.  In that context, such a label is actually a brave statement, a poignant suggestion of what might be done if conditions were right.

Our job, in my view, is to help make the conditions right by putting pressure on all the parties who must act, in concert, to achieve the goal.  Governments and local manufacturers are the main parties to be held culpable.  It is foolish to keep ignoring that fact.

How to do it?  Here I agree 100% with Steve New in his argument that the appropriate place to focus efforts and lend support is the unions on the ground.  Workers need to be able to act on their own behalf and, with the international community behind them, they can.

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