Free to choose in Bangladesh

More than 375 garment workers died last week in Bangladesh as the roof of their building collapsed.  The response of Slate’s Matthew Yglesias was that people in Bangladesh ought to be free to work under unsafe conditions if that is their choice. 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.  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.

via MoneyBox.

Notice the rhetorical two-step.  Yglesias switches back and forth between something obviously true but meaningless, namely that Bangladesh and the United States don’t need to have the exact same safety rules, and something outrageous but false, that the deaths of the workers in Bangladesh are the result of them making different choices than U.S. workers.

“Different choices.”  American retailers make choices as to which low-wage foreign supplier they’ll go to garments.  Bangladeshi manufacturers make choices as to whether or not to repair roofs so they won’t collapse.  Bangladeshi workers also were offered a choice.

bangladesh.roof.collapse.lrescue.workersSome workers had reportedly noticed a crack in the building’s edifice shortly before the incident, but their warnings went ignored.  Some were told to report to work anyway or risk losing a month’s wages.  With minimum pay set below $40 per month (about the retail price of a typical sweater they might produce), workers could ill afford to be concerned about their safety, and so they followed orders and reported to what would be for many their last day of work.

via Working In These Times.

Workers in the United States worked under the same conditions 100 to 150 years ago.  The same arguments about freedom of choice were made to to justify the status quo.   Unionized workers were killed in battles with company police, state militias and federal troops.  Wages and safety standards were raised not by the magic of the market, but by collective bargaining by unions and by the federal laws and regulations established in the Progressive, New Deal and Great Society eras.

If you follow my blog, you might wonder how my concern with worker safety fits in with my new-found interest in anarchism.  How can someone who wants a world without government call for better enforcement of worker safety laws?

Actually, I’m not a strict anarchist, just sort of anarchish.  My understanding is that in an anarchist world, the Bangladeshi garment factories would be controlled by syndicates of workers, and they would determine their own safety rules.   And they probably would manufacture for local customers rather than for a global supply network run by people who didn’t know or care about local conditions.

Another solution would be to replace the World Trade Organization with another international organization that would allow sanctions against countries that denied workers the right to bargain collectively or that refused to enforce minimum standards for worker safety and health.

In These Times magazine reported that Bangladeshi and international trade unionists have proposed a surcharge of 10 cents a garment on Bangladeshi exports to improve the country’s manufacturing infrastructure.  Such a surcharge wouldn’t put any company at a competitive disadvantage because they’d all pay.  It wouldn’t be a burden on Bangladesh because foreigners would pay the surcharge.  It would be too small to appreciably affect sales of individual garments, but the magazine said it would raise an estimated $600 million a year, enough to considerably improve conditions.

bangladesh.texasClick on International factory safety for Matt Yglesias’s complete post, and Some further thoughts on Bangladesh for his reply to criticism.

Click on Would it not be easier for Matt Yglesias to dissolve the Bangladeshi people and elect another? for comment on the Crooked Timber web log.

Click on No, Matt Yglesias, Bangladeshi Workers Did Not Choose to be Crushed to Death for comment in In These Times magazine.

[Update 5/10/13]  More than 1,000 bodies have been recovered as of today.

[Update 5/30/13]

Accountability - in BangladeshIn a just world, business owners and executives would face criminal charges for their business-related violations of law, just like anybody else.

The indictment of Sohel Rana, owner of Rana Plaza, the garment factory where more than 1,100 people were killed last month when the roof collapsed, is a step in the right direction. Based on what is known, he deserves to be charged with negligent homicide. He did not commit premeditated murder, but he evidently acted with reckless disregard of human life, in demanding workers go to work in a building whose walls were seen to be cracking.

He is not a member of the world power elite nor, evidently, the economic elite of his own nation, and he is an individual owner, without the option of corporate personhood, but this is still a good step forward.

Garment companies who outsource production to Third World countries such as Bangladesh have signed a pledge to set safety standards for their subcontractors. Wal-mart (big surprise) and The Gap are major holdouts.

It is good to have laws and regulations protecting worker safety, but laws are not self-enforcing and tend to be ignored when they conflict with strong economic incentives in a competitive market.

The best thing is to have strong labor unions in Bangladesh and elsewhere, so that a worker is in a position refuse to enter a building on the verge of collapse and not risk being blacklisted for employment for the rest of his or her life.

Click on Life Terms Urged in Bangladesh Building Collapse for a report by Inter Press Service on the criminal charges.

Click on Gap, Walmart holdout in Bangladesh safety agreement for a report by RT news on proposed garment industry safety standards.


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