Theory Teacher's Blog

The Rule of Law and the Global Garment Industry: the Case of Bangladesh

Three weeks ago, on April 24th, a textile factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,127 workers, mostly young women.  The horrible event spurred international outrage and the arrest of the factory’s owner and building engineers. Calls for action, however, were followed by speculations on the effects any such action might have on Bangladesh’s struggling economy, not to mention the global business of retail clothing. People around the world wondered what would come of this tragedy. Finally, action seems to have been taken. In today’s New York Times, it was reported that major multinational corporation have signed on to a new “safety plan” and that the government of Bangladesh would revise its labor laws to make it easier for workers to unionize. Today’s news may sound like good news, and daily readers of the newspaper who have been distressed over this for the past two weeks may breathe a sigh of relief and assume the problem has been solved.

But it hasn’t. The New York Times has left out quite a bit of information and common sense. Whether this is because a culture of lazy ignorance and stupidity saturates the profession of journalism or because the Times tends to favor the interests of Wall Street, I don’t know. Maybe both. Maybe neither. In any case, what the Times leaves out is precisely the information that we need if we are to assess whether the new safety plan and national reforms will work.  There is no excuse for neglecting this  information since global activists such as the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights  and the United Students Against Sweatshops have been making a case for global legal reform not just for Bangladesh, but worldwide, since the mid-1990s. In response to activists, the multinational corporations such as Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, and others have fought tooth and nail against labor and safety standards, though you wouldn’t know that from reading the Times. Here is the first part of a documentary entitled The Hidden Face of Globalization about the garment industry in Bangladesh produced by those activists:

The early years of this conflict was reported by Naomi Klein in her influential book, No Logo, published way back in 2000, which quickly became standard reading for global labor activism around the world. Back in 2000, there seemed to be a ray of hope for college students who were promoting something called “designated suppliers” which would enable colleges and other organizations to select only factories that abide by labor, environmental, safety, and human rights standards to produce the clothing and other items with their college logo on them. In addition to many universities, many Catholic churches also took a leading role in this movement for social justic.

However, the designated supplier programs are difficult because of something called “outsourcing” whereby the retailer outsources the management of production to another company who in turn outsources the actual production to yet another local company. Major retailers claim such designater supplier programs violate anti-trust law on the grounds that it controls supply chains, and hence the big corporate lawyers began to sue the nonprofit educational and religious organizations that attempted them, which of course is ironic considering that Wal-Mart’s entire model of success is based on its very aggressive control of supply chains.  The hypocrisy of the corporate world’s position apparently went unnoticed by the American judiciary. At the same time, when local governments in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Guatemala, among others, try to support their labor force through the regulation of businesses, tax revenue for social programs and education programs, and labor rights standards, they are threatened with a loss of capitalization and financing by the International Monetary Fund and Wall Street brokers.

Much of the debate over globalization has been about how regulation happens — including the question of what laws are made and how they are enforced. So, what is sinister about the new “safety plan” proposed by multinational corporations is that they locate the problem in Bangladesh and pretend that they will now take responsibility for the problem. Related to this political issue, scholars of literature and media such as myself have long noticed how expressions of sympathy over the poor in the so-called “third world” countries actually exacerbates the problem, because these shallow tears assume a paternalistic pity for others rather than an honest assessment of our own complicity. In other words, the cultural representation of sympathy supports the political plan of condescending paternalism that was naively reported by the Times today. We can imagine the Hollywood version of this movie — all tears and pity for the poor foreign country, but no substance and no awareness of the complex economic reality. After all, if we instead take a more global and politically responsible view, then the corporations would have to admit that it was their own practices and belligerent political pressure that created the problem, not just in Bangladesh, but worldwide.

And more to the point, who really believes that corporations will honestly regulate themselves?

Instead, what might be prefered is that the Bangladeshi government be in charge of such regulation, rather than the corporations, even if we worry over government corruption.  This preference for the role of national government is part of the tradition of the United States and its Constitution. Such a preference should remind us of the success the labor movement in the United States had after a very similar event on the Lower East Side of New York City a century ago. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 led to the tragic death of 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women. It galvanized labor organizers and caused a shift in public thinking that eventually led to many of the labor standards Americans enjoy today: the right to unionize, minimum wage, overtime pay, and many other laws protecting the rights and safety of the worker. It is the responsibility of state and national government to ensure that the law is followed, that buildings are built to code, and that workers are not exploited. It might seem that Bangladesh is poised to follow this model, and indeed, the event has led to its government revising labor law so as to be less hostile to workers.

However, two things are significantly different. First, in this case, it is not the national government that is enforcing the new so-called safety plan, but rather a loose agreement among multinational corporations to do better in Bangladesh. Is that a viable model? And why not do better everywhere? Second, the question of why not do better everywhere, rather than in just the one country, leads to the troubling economic reality of globalization and the question of global governance. As the sociologist Saskia Sassen in her book Globalization and Its Discontents (1999) and the Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in his book also titled Globalization and Its Discontents (2002) have both observed, whenever one country starts to improve its labor and environmental standards, then the system of outsourcing and supply chaining simply moves its factories somewhere else. Hence, there is a legitimate fear within Bangladesh that implementing the rule of law in their country could result in multinational corporations moving their business elsewhere and financial institutions punishing the Bangladeshi government by pulling out their investment. The old nation-based model of progress that was so successful in the United States in the 1930s after the Traingle Shirtwaist Fire is a model that struggles today in the face of globalization.

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May 14, 2013 Posted by | global | Leave a comment