KABIR: Some assembly required
Western companies ought to fight for better working conditions in the foreign countries that produce their goods
Recently, The New York Times published an editorial titled “Fed Up in Bangladesh” that supported Bangladesh workers’ demands for better labor conditions, particularly in garment factories, and higher wages. A number of protests in Bangladesh have brought the issue of worker conditions to the forefront after the collapse of a garment factory in April killed more than a thousand people. Much of the problem is the government’s refusal to raise the minimum wage, which is currently $38 a month. Workers want the minimum wage to be raised to $100 a month. But their bargaining power is limited. Bangladesh has a large population of unskilled workers — so if current laborers refuse to work, plenty of others are likely to be willing.
While the article was informative in addressing the problem of poor worker’s condition, it should have placed more emphasis on the responsibilities of European and American companies who buy products from Bangladesh garment factories. By no means am I claiming that the Bangladesh government is not at fault, because it undoubtedly is. Rampant corruption and power politics make it difficult, in any meaningful way, to resolve problems like labor conditions. However, Western clothing manufacturers are also at fault, and this issue deserves to be fully discussed rather than mentioned in passing, as The New York Times did.
Western companies perpetuate poor working conditions because they (generally) turn a blind eye to them. The companies receive the goods that they need on time and at low cost. So why bother delving into how the goods were produced? Moreover, greater numbers of companies are taking advantage of the cheap goods by increasing their business in Bangladesh, thereby offering little-to-no incentive for the owners of garment factories to change how the factories are run. On the contrary, the owners may fear that if they change their policies to improve factory safety and pay workers more — which will likely increase the prices of their goods — then the Western companies would simply take their business elsewhere.
Another problem with this situation, particularly in Bangladesh, is that there are laws on the books that deal with safety and labor standards. Required inspections to ensure good working conditions and laws mandating fire safety drills theoretically provide protection for workers. But application and enforcement of these laws remain a hurdle because of bribery and backroom deals. The Bangladesh government has failed to make workers’ safety a priority. With the government failing to address the issue, the owners, too, are ignoring it, because they do not fear repercussions from disregarding workers’ laws.
At this juncture between policy and implementation, Western companies can play an important role. They can apply pressure on factory owners to address the issue of workers’ conditions, and threaten to withdraw their business if certain standards are not met. Western companies can request for the owners to improve their conditions, or they will take their business elsewhere. Sweden-based H&M, for example, signed onto a legally binding plan that requires retailers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in the Bangladesh factories that produce their goods. If a number of large companies take a similar route and agree to help pay for safety improves while pushing the government to raise the minimum wage, that could be a significant step toward improving working conditions in Bangladesh.
While Bangladesh was the focus of this article, the problem of poor working conditions is present in other Asian countries such as Cambodia and China. Bangladesh is merely an example and a mechanism to highlight a widespread problem and the role Western companies have played in that problem. These same companies can also be the solution if they take stronger stances in advocating for better working conditions. They are in strong positions to apply pressure on factory owners to enforce change, especially if they work together.
Fariha Kabir is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Wednesdays.