Ecocentric

Fast, Cheap, Dead: Shopping and the Bangladesh Factory Collapse

Nearly 400 people were killed when a textile factory near Dhaka collapsed. It's the worst disaster in the history of clothing manufacturing. How much blame do consumers deserve?

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Ismail Ferdous / AP

A worker at the site of the garment factory building that collapsed near Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 29, 2013.

The collapse of a factory building near Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed at least 362 people, is almost certainly the worst accident in the history of the garment industry. It’s worse than the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 that you learned about in American history class and which helped lead to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards. It’s worse than the 1993 Kader Toy Factory fire in Bangkok, which killed 188 people, nearly all of them women and teenage girls. It’s worse than the Ali Enterprises Factory fire in Karachi, which killed at least 262 people — and which I’m guessing nearly all of us had forgotten about, or never knew it occurred, even though the disaster happened only eight months ago.

Bangladeshi officials are still investigating the causes behind the factory’s collapse on April 24, although Sohel Rana, the building’s owner, was arrested over the weekend as he attempted to flee the country. There’s no shortage of possible reasons — building codes in Bangladesh are too rarely enforced and corruption in the country is rampant. Nor, sadly, are such disasters rare. A major fire in a textile factory in Dhaka killed over 100 people just last November. While thousands of Bangladeshi protesters have taken to the streets in the wake of the building collapse, and the political opposition has called for a national strike on May 2, there’s little hope that the catastrophe will be the last that the country’s garment workers suffer.

(MORE: Mr. Green Jeans: Levi’s Detoxifies Its Supply Chain)

The clothes that the doomed workers in Dhaka were laboring over when their factory collapsed include some Western brands, like Primark and Joe Fresh. Is there anything we as clothing consumers can or should do about these deaths? In a post written last week as the dead were still being tallied in the building collapse, Slate’s economics blogger Matthew Yglesias suggests, not really:

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. 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. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.

Yglesias was raked over the coals by, as he put it in a later piece, just about the entire Internet. (This one was particularly good.) Yglesias was guilty of, at the very least, bad taste — the economic wonkery can wait until the dead have been counted. He makes the neoliberal point, just as the sweatshop defenders did during the Nike Wars of the 1990s, that Bangladesh’s low, low cost of doing business has helped the country take needed textile jobs — including from China — and build an $18 billion manufacturing industry. But there’s a difference between accepting that workers are being paid sweatshop wages to make our incredibly inexpensive clothes — the minimum wage is $36.50 a month — and accepting that they must labor in deathtraps. And they do: according to the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group in Washington, more than 1,000 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in fires and other disasters.

(PHOTOS: Many Dead as Garment Factory in Bangladesh Collapses)

Even Yglesias backtracked later, emphasizing that there are on-the-ground improvements that can be made to labor standards in Bangladesh that could mean the difference between life and death. (See this interview with Kimberly Ann Elliott of the Center for Global Development for a few ideas.) And those improvements shouldn’t drastically increase the cost of clothes made in Bangladesh — which is a good thing, given our addiction to cheap and fast-changing fashion:

“It bothers me, but a lot of retailers are getting their clothes from these places and I can’t see how I can change anything,” 21-year-old university student Elizabeth McNail said, clutching a brown paper bag from clothier Primark the day after a building collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, killed at least 362 people. “They definitely need to improve, but I’ll still shop here. It’s so cheap.”

International retailers can do more to advocate safer standards at textile factories that manufacture their wares, in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Customers can do their part by putting a little pressure on their favorite brands, though that would require placing as much value on the cost of a life as you might on the cost of a T-shirt.

MORE: Fashion: Why Green Is Not the New Black

26 comments
gs03ssl
gs03ssl

Free market is based on mutual consent of buyers and sellers. But flimsy businessmen and politicians hide critical information about the job - that workers are risking their lives working there - to get consent. This is information asymmetry and market failure. Free market ideologues have always ignored this kind of dishonest dealing and pretend everything is fine. Distaste is an understatement. The are accomplice of corruption and contributed to the human tragedies around the world, while faking their identities to be the advocates of liberty. How many of them are so naive as to never notice this kind of market failure?

TomMengel
TomMengel

OK, the  American Legislative Exchange Council.  Who owns this (companies and names please).  Consumers have got to start tracking this stuff (you can bet the opposition is).

TomMengel
TomMengel

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed Amazon.com's suddenly dropping their new funky, cute, 20 some-thing wild dancing get all your latest fashion at Amazon TV ads?  Guess they might not want anyone to deduce exactly where some of those duds are coming from?  Nah, that would be a cynical deduction now wouldn't it . . . but it's a start.

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

Sorry to see greed continues to put profits above workers.  This is why we need more oversight in business and by business itself.

I also continue to believe we  (the USA) shouldn't be importing goods from that far away when they can be made here or the Carribbean.   Yes those workers need jobs, but so do these impoverished workers closer to home.

leighanne
leighanne

The corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council PUSHES for deregulation...let's be wary of them.

leighanne
leighanne

the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

"American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer."

Then I don't suppose there's any fiscal impediment to building factories that are safer in which these folks can work for slave wages, huh?

আমিচেনাকেউ
আমিচেনাকেউ

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet bangladeshi industrial catastrophes  are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty.

fmk222
fmk222

After hearing & reading all about the Bangladesh industrial catastrophe I've to ask: where was the government & what was it doing all these years? What were its inspectors doing? How did the building owner violate almost all the known laws & rules & still no one from the state asked any questions or did anything at all to rectify the situation! Isn't that just astounding?

fazal kamal


SabrinaPruni
SabrinaPruni

Let's say that the brands involved (Mango, El corte Ingles, perhaps Benetton) are not exactly 'cheap'. And let's say also that outsourcing garment production (for a manufacturing -European- country like mine) is just a major LOSS. Prices remain the same, our factories shut down, and jobs are lost... Outsourcing is a major problem here!! We need those jobs... The only winners in this situation are billionaires/executives/capitalists (whatever you want to call them) who increase their margins and cut costs (no environmental protection, no workers rights/protection).

JaySchuls
JaySchuls like.author.displayName 1 Like

@SabrinaPruni not to mention the tens of thousands stockholders and people with retirement plans they all want their investment in these companies to turn a profit

TomMengel
TomMengel

@JaySchuls@SabrinaPruni"not to mention the tens of thousands stockholders and people with retirement plans they all want their investment in these companies to turn a profit"

Bingo.  Note who off-sites your jobs and tell them you and every one you know will never buy from them again.  If we can make this a consumer driven moral as well as economic issue for the companies involved it will get their attention with the biggest leverage we have - money to their bottom line.

SabrinaPruni
SabrinaPruni

@TomMengel @JaySchuls In Europe what you call 'retirement plans' are very uncommon. What we have here are state pensions (a very different system, it's the state here that pays your pension, even if you've been working in the private sector).
I do agree with you, Tom, buying a product or another is like voting/making a moral choice. The problem with the garment industry (where labour cost has a very big impact and can be used to cut costs and increase margins) is that you are barely left with a choice. A couple of days ago I bought a Ralph Lauren t-shirt (just to make a non-cheap example) then yesterday I looked at the label: made in China... 

SabrinaPruni
SabrinaPruni

Good point, Jay, but this is very uncommon for avarage people in my country. Due to the financial crisis and outsourcing we are struggling with a 38%  juvenile unemployment... 

azmalhome
azmalhome

thousand poor people have been dead it's nothing to worry for the long time,but a ruling party small leader has been dead by terrorist, it must be important to pm of the Bangladesh. i detest pm of the Bangladesh. she's stupid than me.

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/

YEAHH
YEAHH

This is a huge generalization of the bangladesh garment industry, yes there is no denying that some companies do have an unstable and dangerous working environment but this isn't applicable for all the companies... some companies keep their workers under ideal conditions. 

The companies who buy from the bangladesh garment industry should not be discouraged from buying from Bangladesh as that will send the already suffering country into a downwards spiral. As the economy is largely dependent on the garment sector. Instead they should be more selective in the companies they buy from, checking both the working conditions for the employees and legality of the business and the buildings in which the workers work. 



ijbtheterrible
ijbtheterrible

Greed of places that make them and companies that order them. 

LadyinLA
LadyinLA

It is disrespectful and naive to scold consumers -- average Americans living from paycheck to paycheck and trying to save a little along the way -- as the cause of this tragic problem.

Perhaps your comfortable salary has insulated you from that fact, and at a time when those of us who still have jobs do so in an economy where everything costs at least 15% more than it used to, with prices going up everyday and salaries at a standstill ... and all this because we know the problems that tanked the economy in 2008 have been tip-toed around.

Those worthless, bad-bundled mortgages are still out there, still congesting secondary markets, and businesses are scrambling to maintain cash flow without it.  Things could get ugly again, and all for the lack of short-term paper.

And don't forget, American Apparel sells cheap t-shirts, and they are 100% sweatshop free. 

Are you sure you're asking the right questions?


ScottTurner
ScottTurner

@LadyinLA I never saw him scolding consumers.  He is reminding people who are concerned about this that they are not powerless.  The other problems you mention are created by the greed of big business, which is also what is behind this tragedy and the others described in the introduction to this article.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

I have a hard time blaming consumers when they have next to no choices. This is not even about accesses to cheap cloths, it's about making a choice to buy sweat shop clothing or go naked. 

Heck at this point people are fighting hard just trying to stop walmart from sourcing material from know Slave Shops. How sad is that?  Although I would love to read Yglesias's thoughts on that. I'm sure he could craft a great neoliberal* argument is defense of slavery..

*I 1st saw this term the other day on Et tu, Mr. Destructo? , I like it, it's a great way to highlight the increasingly extreme wacko's on the left. The democrats and liberals need to do a better job in policing our crazies then the GOP did. We don't need a liberal Teaparty.

AMW
AMW

I don't think this one should be totally put on the consumer.  Do we want cheap throw away clothing?  Yes.  Are we responsible for building codes in third world countries?  No.  If there was a boycott on the stores that sell these cheap items the workers suffer, here and off shore.  It is not America's responsibility to watch over the rest of the world.  If they try it'll never work.  US strong arm in Afghanistan, Middle East, Syria?  Never work.  Never.  Help develop but not dictate building codes in Bangladesh?  For sure.  Strong arm them with threats?  I don't think so.

ScottTurner
ScottTurner like.author.displayName 1 Like

@AMW I don't think the author of this article was trying to blame the consumer.  The important point is that if consumers are concerned about this factory collapse, and labour standards in general, they need not feel powerless.  There are things we can do to make a difference, such as advocate for the changes mentioned in the second last paragraph of the article.  SwiftrightRight raises a real issue about the lack of choices, however it is actually a case of little choice rather than no choice.  There are a few small retailers of International Labour Organisation (ILO) accredited fair trade clothing.  The New Internationalist online shop is one of them - I hope this isn't too commercial for this forum.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@ScottTurner @AMW I have not been able to find any around here. After losing my job in 2009 and having to retrain we started buying at second hand shops. Its a behavior we have continued even now that Im making better money then I use to. What really shocked us though was when we were looking up info on my daughters cloths and discovered the company that makes them buys material from companies that employs slaves, or should I say utilizes slave labor.

And when I mean slave I dont mean "wage slave"or  whiny Americans using the word slave incorrectly or even a person living in squalid but livable conditions. I mean real, abducted from their town in the middle of the night, held at gun point, forced to work or die, traded for money and or cattle SLAVES.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

Never disagree with the politically correct. Logic can never overcome their emotional decision making....