Bangladeshi workers should not have to trade their poverty for their safety

The death of more than 300 people due to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh which contained factories producing clothes for Western companies such as Primark, has triggered the usual debate about working conditions in such facilites and about “sweatshops” in developing countries, and as usual there are people defending those working conditions and criticising those who demand standards more in line with those we expect in the West.

For example, Alex Massie in his Spectator blog points out that

…sweatshops in the developing world have, on balance, been a good thing. And it is not even close.
For most of human history most life has been brutal, nasty and short. This is not something to celebrate but nor can it be avoided. Working conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories may often remain pretty dreadful. But they are better than life toiling in the fields. Some 45% of Bangladeshis work in agriculture, many of them still, alas, on terms little better than subsistence farming. By contrast, working in a clothing factory is, relatively speaking, an attractive option.

and Matt Yglesias in Slate says

Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh.

Well as Corey Robin at Crooked Timber points out, the people of Bangladesh are making their feelings very clear on this matter, but I want to look at the wider principles.

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