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.
First of all, I don’t dispute that outsourcing production to developing countries has in general been a good thing, and has genuine economic benefits which should accrue both to ourselves and to people in those countries. Of course there is an impact on those who were previously doing those jobs in this country, and possibly a knock on effect on others – I perfectly understand why people therefore raise objections, and it is important that proper assistance is provided to those affected. But these arguments are in principle no different to those which have raged over the years when automated (and less labour intensive) methods of production have been introduced in various industries – we could provide jobs to people in this country by moving production of clothing back here, we could provide even more by going back to hand woven rather than machine made fabrics, but it’s generally recognised that the wider economic benefits from more cost effective means of production mean more prosperity for all of us in the long run.
Of course we have to recognise that the lower costs which result from moving production overseas are partly, largely even, the result of lower labour costs due to differences in wages and labour regulations between those countries and the West, and obviously the wage levels and working conditions at factories producing goods for Western markets in places such as Bangladesh will largely reflect local standards rather than Western ones. But this should not mean that anything goes or that the likes of Primark should not have some responsibility for the welfare of the people who are ultimately producing the goods they sell. It is recognised in this country that workers have a right, a moral one as well as a legal one, to a fair wage and decent (and safe) working conditions, and even if the exact definition of terms such as “decent” and “fair” may vary according to location there is no reason why workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere should be any less deserving of that right than those in the UK. And, importantly, recognising this principle, and indeed acting on it, does not mean it will no longer be economically beneficial to locate production in those places. Maybe the savings will not be quite as large but given the difference in costs between production in developing countries and the West they would still be substantial, and if it is necessary for us to pay a few more pence for a t-shirt or pair of trainers so then so be it.
The bottom line is that it should be a matter of basic and universal rights that workers should earn enough to feed their family, should not work excessive hours and should be able to join a trade union, women should enjoy certain maternity rights, employers should not use child labour, and people should have working conditions which are safe and their lives should not be put in danger merely by turning up for work. If we believe in these rights then we have a moral duty to try to support them wherever we have the opportunity. And while we should recognise that producing consumer goods for wealthy westerners is moving people in the developing world out of extreme poverty it is immoral to expect them to trade off their own safety and well being in return. Furthermore, if we allow some kind of race to the bottom with producers in different countries trying to undercut each other without regard for the cost to their own workers or any enforcement of minimum standards then those people who have been benefiting up to now may suddenly find themselves impoverished again, and we will most certainly see more incidents like Rana Plaza.