Primark customers did not ’cause’ the collapse of a Dhaka clothing factory.
Predictably enough, it took barely 24 hours from the time of the tragic collapse of a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which produced clothes for amongst others, the UK’s Primark and Matalan, for the usual anti-globalisation “activists” to start berating the outlets’ UK customers as being largely to blame.
Wearing appropriately anguished expressions, plus of course the obligatory ribbons to show us what caring, concerned citizens they are, it was, they informed any TV reporter willing to listen, our fault for buying cheap T-shirts that several hundred Bangladeshi workers had died, and our only humane reaction must be to boycott the UK outlets forthwith. The equally strident calls for a ban on future imports of garments even potentially manufactured in emerging economy “sweatshops” followed soon afterwards.
First, the sheer physical facts of the disaster. It emerged fairly quickly in the aftermath of the collapse that the building itself had been shoddily constructed, and that its substandard construction appeared likely to be a major factor in initiating the collapse. Without being remotely chauvinistic, that, sadly, should not surprise us. Building standards in emerging countries are very often not up to the standards we in the West would regard as the minimum acceptable.
To make them so may require materials that are difficult to source locally, or are prohibitively expensive, to the extent of making the investment in building itself uneconomic: the expertise to work with them may not be available in the local construction industry: there may well not be the developed building standards regulations and inspection-cum-enforcement regime that we take for granted. To state these things is not to condone, or excuse: it is merely to observe.
It transpired, soon after the shoddy construction became apparent, that the builders/developers had what were euphemistically described as “links” to government politicians and bureaucracy officialdom. That, equally sadly, should also not surprise us. Where governance institutions are not strong, and in a country not in existence long enough (remember, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan only in 1971) for abstract notions of civic probity and the separation of public interest from private to put down deep enough roots, the likelihood of corruption is greater. Bangladesh rates only 144th in Transparency International’s 2012 Index of 176 countries ranked in order of least susceptibility to corruption (the lower the ranking, the more corrupt).
So the possibility that corruption between developers, builders, politicians and officials also played a part in the construction of an unsafe working environment can by no means be discounted. Once again, to state these things is not to condone, or excuse: it is merely to acknowledge their existence and their likely contribution. To blame the final consumers of a product manufactured in one part of that factory, though, is plainly inaccurate to the point of self-indulgence.
The economic case for blaming the final consumer, on the grounds of the alleged iniquities of what its detractors label “sweatshop” manufacturing – seeking to frame debate on an emotional plane rather than a rational one – is more flawed still, even economically illiterate.
The standard criticism is that giving our custom to low-budget clothing firms like Primark or Matalan validates exploiting workers in emerging economies who are, goes the argument, forced to work long hours making cheap clothes for a fraction of the wages that would be acceptable in wealthier, more developed, countries. Probe a little deeper into the motives and thinking of those articulating the critique, though, and very often it isn’t long before what becomes obvious is not so much a specific objection to working conditions in one factory or one country per se, so much as a general, and fundamentally Leftish, antipathy to enterprise capitalism in general and globally mobile and integrated enterprise capitalism in particular. That makes it more important to counter, and dispel, the argument.
That wages and conditions in developing world manufacturing include some which would not be tolerated in advanced economies is certainly true. But people are not forced to work in such conditions: they choose to do so because the alternatives actually available to them are worse. The mistake which the poverty-exploitation argument makes is to compare those workers’ conditions with those which it has taken us in the West something like 250 years of industrialisation to achieve: they need instead to be compared with the alternatives in their own countries. The alternative to working in a Dhaka clothing factory for what to Western liberal sensibilities may seem a pittance isn’t a £30,000 pa 9-to-5 clerical job in the NHS with an index-linked pension – it’s very probably a backbreaking 12-hour day of hard manual labour under a hot sun in a humid, waterlogged, malarial mosquito-prone paddy field.
Compared with that, a clothing factory job provides not only better working conditions, but better pay too. That pay may well be relatively high compared with the average in their country and with what they might make elsewhere in their own economy, even if it may be relatively low by Western standards. But it’s that latter factor of an available supply of cost-effective labour in an emerging economy that prompts producers to locate a manufacturing facility there and thereby create jobs – jobs which, if required to be subject to Western levels of pay and conditions, would no longer exist, forcing their holders back into much lower paid and far more arduous subsistence-level agricultural manual labour, and denying them the opportunity of escaping from it on to the first rungs of the wealth improvement ladder.
The availability of a regular income higher than subsistence level allows workers in emerging economies to start the process of betterment for themselves and their families. At the basic level, they may benefit from access to a more nutritious diet or better healthcare: some may invest in basic transport to make their journey to and from work a little easier: some will allow their children to benefit from staying in longer in education rather than being forced to join the family income effort at the earliest opportunity. Two or three generations down the line, some may see their descendants being the first in their family to go to university, or enter the professions. The country’s economic and social capital increases.
If emerging economy countries can produce goods which we want at a cheaper price than we can, we need to encourage them, not deter them. They are benefiting from the Law of Comparative Advantage by allocating their resources to low-tech production giving higher returns and wealth than agriculture, just as we are by allocating ours to higher wealth generating knowledge-based high-tech production or services, rather than basic manufacture. Buying emerging economies’ manufactures gives them entry to our markets, and access to the first rungs on the economic ladder: we benefit from buying their goods, and they benefit from getting our money. As their economies become richer, they will become able to afford better pay and working conditions for their people, and increasing prosperity will allow it. If we are genuinely concerned to advance their welfare, we should be helping them along that journey as quickly as possible.
The way to do that is not by wrongly blaming the Dhaka factory disaster on Primark’s or Matalan’s customers, or by calling for import bans or boycotts of their products, or by seeking to castigate their customers on dubious moral grounds, however much narcissistic self-indulgent virtue the purported anti-poverty, anti-globalisation campaigners may feel by telling themselves what good and caring people they are by being so misguided. The way to do that is to keep shopping at Primark and Matalan, buying the emerging economies’ products, and helping them to grow their way into greater wealth and prosperity.