The cost of poverty?
Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee
While I’m writing this lives are still at stake in the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, the collapsed building which housed one of the many garments factories providing Western customers with low cost clothes. Three hundred workers are believed to have died and six hundred are still missing, with very little chance of being pulled out alive. As often is the case after such tragedies a debate is now raging in the media touching upon the familiar issues of globalization and global capital, with some very powerful ethical overtones. David Blair in the Daily Telegraph has convincingly argued that ‘all of us are linked to this tragedy in some way’, retailers and consumers alike; moreover we, as consumers, should use our purchasing power to force retailers to sign up to local tougher workplace safety agreements.
On this particular issue Matthew Yglesias writing in the online magazine Slate has claimed:
‘Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States. … Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans… Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer’.
In a similar vein Tom Chivers in the Daily Telegraph has warned:
‘If you force Bangladesh to run its sweatshops at much higher safety standards, labour costs will go up. The only advantage Bangladesh has over other countries is that their labour costs are cheap; without that advantage, the companies may go elsewhere. Then Bangladesh will lose the source of income that is currently making its poor people better off. It is perfectly possible that well-intentioned efforts to improve the lot of workers in the developing world will backfire, and make things worse. For instance, one study found that a law in Brazil banning under-16s from working reduced their school attendance.’
So here are some moral questions for us all to ponder: is poverty a good reason to justify the lowering of safety standards in particular parts of the world? Can workers in poor countries exercise any free choice as implied by Yglesias in his Slate piece above? Retailers like Primark and Bonmarché have a strikingly successful business model, in that by outsourcing production to developing countries they can sell clothes so cheaply that Western consumers regard them as disposable items. What are the consequences of such a business model not only in the clothing industry, but in the food industry and, of particular interests to readers of this blog, in (higher) education?