Since November, more than a thousand Bangladeshi garment workers have perished in two tragic factory calamities: a fire in Tazreen and a building collapse in Savar, outside the capital, Dhaka. Bangladesh is a major exporter of apparel to the West and “is set to become the world’s largest apparel exporter over the next few years,” the Economist reports. Wages are lower there than most places, including China, and a large percentage of the 4 million garment workers are women.
Are dangerous factories the price of progress? A passionate debate now rages over whether international safety standards should be enforced against manufacturers in the developing world and their Western retailers. Proponents of standards argue that the costs would be small and the benefits great. An Accord on Fire and Building Safety has been signed by major retailers in Europe and a few in North America, but the Huffington Post says that 14 other North American retailers have refused to endorse it. “Some retailers, like Walmart, claim they are working on separate initiatives to improve conditions and workplace safety in Bangladesh,” the online publication states, but this claim has been met with skepticism.
Opponents of government regulation argue that artificially raising the costs of manufacturing in poor countries would harm intended beneficiaries by destroying jobs. If so, workers would face worse options, including life on the streets and prostitution.
Unfortunately, the debate is unnecessarily narrow. What needs discussing — and radical changing — is the country’s political-economic system, which benefits elites while keeping the mass of people down. The economists are correct that under the status quo, imposing safety standards would raise costs, cause unemployment, and aggravate poverty. But we can’t leave the matter there. We must go on to examine how the political-economic system constricts people’s employment opportunities, including self-employment, and otherwise stifles their efforts to improve their lives. Thus, a debate over whether garment factories should be subject to safety regulations, while the status quo goes largely undisturbed, misses the point.
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