Friday, April 26, 2013

Made in Bangladesh

This is a blog post I've had in various draft forms for a while now, but I think it might be ripe, considering the recent events in Bangladesh. This past Wednesday, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, and the death toll has recently passed 300.

What might be most remarkable about this is, it's not news. We're used to seeing Made in China (Vietnam, Singapore, wherever) on most of what we buy; and we know what this label implies about the conditions that the products were made in. The reality of where our products come from is pretty easy to put out of our minds, and the casual acceptance of this is commonplace. At least, if it's not acceptance, it's the acknowledgement that we wish things could be different, but what can you do when almost everything we consume is made on the other side of the world - fair trade coffee and used clothing can only go so far. Knowing that what we buy was likely made at the high price of the oppression of an anonymous person almost requires that there is a certain degree of acceptance (I'm considering throwing around the Orwellian buzzword of 'doublethink,' but maybe that is too sensationalist) because it is so difficult to step out of this framework.

Although images of oppression, long hours, and unsafe conditions evoke visceral reactions to what clearly seems to be injustice, there is a growing field of thought that sweatshops are actually beneficial. This position may seem counter-intuitive, but you can read some of the positions in defence of sweatshops here, here, here and here.

Basically, a defence of sweatshops appeals to points along these lines:
  • People who work in sweatshops are pursuing the best option they have; working in a sweatshop is better than starving to death, rummaging for food or things to sell in a garbage dump, or prostitution. And even though it may seem like it is just the best of a handful of terrible choices, sweatshops actually offer wages that are more than the national average income.
  • Unsafe conditions and long hours in a factory are not unlike any other country's that has gone under industrialization. What developing countries are undergoing is no different than what we saw in Industrial Britain, and we need to allow this process to go its natural course. In fact, this process is getting faster due to the technology and capital we have available, and places like Hong Kong and Singapore are largely past this phase, in only 30 years.
  • Not only are sweatshops a natural part of industrialization, but they are merely a symptom of poverty, not a root cause. It would be misguided to ban them, and would ultimately hurt a country's economy.
  • Simply offering higher wages is not necessarily a solution either; this often leads to bribes being used get a job, and if work became expensive in a given country, a company would likely just move their business where they could get the most profit. Further, compensation in other ways (shorter hours, more bathroom breaks) do not affect a worker's overall productivity, so there is no incentive for employers to implement these.
The main thing that these articles came down to was that sweatshops are simply the best option that people have, or else they would not be working there. They cite quotes from people who wish they could be working in a factory, or of factory employees wishing that more people would buy their products.

Of course working in a sweatshop is better than garnering wages from a garbage dump. It is misleading to say that people are "choosing" to work in sweatshops, if the only reasonable options they have are working in a sweatshop, living off a garbage heap, or dying. Characterizing people as having "chosen" to work in a sweatshop misrepresents their situation, as if they could reasonably do  otherwise, and are there out of their own volition. Simply because a sweatshop is the best out of three terrible options does not mean it is something we should endorse, or not seek to improve.

All that said - it is easy to be outraged at situations like the events in Bangladesh, or deaths and difficult lives that are never reported on. But, this does not mean that banning sweatshops is the best route either. In some cases, sweatshops make up a significant portion of a country's manufacturing sector. To ban them would be shortsighted, and very damaging to an economy, as well as its residents. If sweatshops are the best option that people have, taking this away can be detrimental to their livelihoods if they have nowhere else to turn. An example of the negative effects that can occur with outright banning is during the 1990's, a German-run garment production company in Bangladesh laid off around 50 000 children; follow-up from Oxfam found that most of these kids turned to prostitution, crime, or just ended up starving. We need to fully understand issues in another country before acting, as well as treat the root causes of poverty rather than symptoms.

This discussion essentially comes down to two main questions: can sweatshops bring a country out of poverty? Are there any other options? I don't know the answers to these questions, and I think attempting to address them would be out of my breadth, right now at least.

Events like those in Bangladesh often spur a wave of guilt - and, this is not wholly misplaced. But, guilt and outrage are easy, especially when we see death tolls in the hundreds. What is hard is really changing our buying habits, finding ways to invest in our local communities, and becoming informed on what our role is as North Americans in addressing global poverty in a meaningful way - most important is to continue this pursuit past the feelings of the shock of tragedy and into our everyday lives.

Food for thought and related reading:

"The Complexity of Complicity"

"Slavery must be recognized in all its guises." - The Guardian

"Creating a Sweatfree World" - International Labor Rights Forum