Humanosphere is on hiatus. Many thanks to our web design, development and hosting partner Culture Foundry for keeping the site active while we plan our next move. Culture Foundry builds, evolves and supports next-level websites and applications for clients you know, and you couldn’t ask for a better partner to help you thrive in digital. If you’re considering an ambitious website design or development project, we encourage you to make them your very first call.

Do the poor in Bangladesh need their jobs more than workplace safety?

A Bangladeshi garment factory. (Credit: jankie)

A deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh that has so far been estimated to have killed nearly 250 people is again raising questions about the role that US companies and consumers play in perpetuating dangerous and unfair sweatshops overseas.

Amid all the reports of this massive tragedy, Slate’s Matt Yglesias offered a counterpoint to the moral outrage — and, indirectly, against the pleas from some Bangladeshi workers – with a blog post arguing that we should accept reduced safety rules in poor countries.

Yglesias was responding to the case made by University of Rhode Island history professor Erik Loomis that the factory building collapse that killed at least 244 people in Dhaka shows the need for universal labor standards across all countries. He writes in the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog:

Ultimately, we need international standards for factory safety, guaranteed through an international agency that includes vigorous inspections and real financial punishments. Of course, we are a long ways from any of this. But we have to begin at least talking in these terms, demanding accountability for workplace deaths, whether in the United States or in Bangladesh.

News reports are coming out about the circumstances of the building collapse. The LA Times reports labor activists saying that as many as 2,500 people refused to enter the building over structural concerns. Visible cracks were reason concern for the workers, but assurances from managers and the building owner proved to be enough to get the workers inside only an hour before it collapsed.

“The workers were absolutely frightened,” said Charlie Kernaghan, director of the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, which has offices in Bangladesh to the LA Times. “They saw those cracks with their own eyes…. But they felt they had no choice. If you don’t go to work, you’re not getting paid.”

Amid the outcries, Yglesias said that it is not clear if Bangladesh needs tougher workplace safety laws.

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. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. 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.

His evidence is the fact that American jobs continue to grow safer as does the economy of Bangladesh. In other words, Yglesias argues that on the margin, things are better for both Americans and Bangladeshis despite the danger posed by poor workplace laws and enforcement in Bangladesh.

In an earlier paragraph, Yglesias argues that there are dangerous jobs even in the United States. That kind of labor is rewarded with better pay and he says it is a good thing because ” in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.” He continued to discuss the issue of choice, a point which people quickly seized upon by arguing that choice is not necessarily the case when it comes to the labor opportunities for and conditions faced by people in Bangladesh.

Yglesias is right about Bangladesh improving. An article from The Economist in November showed the “extraordinary improvements in almost every indicator of human welfare” achieved by Bangladesh over the past two decades.  Standing in the way is a problematic government that is not above exacting personal vendetta’s against businesses (look no further than Grameen Bank).

“Bangladesh has become a model of what can be done, despite her government’s corrupt, poisonous politics,” concludes the article.

However, it appears that sweatshop labor may be the most desirable choice for workers. A series of interviews of Salvadorian sweatshop workers revealed that it was the preferred form of labor as opposed to alternatives like agriculture and street vending.

Field interviews reveal that subjects perceive their alternatives, including agricultural work and street vending, as less desirable when compared to sweatshop labor. Non-monetary benefits are an important part of this appraisal. The interviews provide information about the margins along which subjects’ compensation improves and identifies factory employment as one means of improving intergenerational mobility, educational attainment, and improved economic opportunities for women.

It is plausible that the factory workers in Bangladesh chose the best of only bad options. If ensuring that people make more money is the ultimate goal, it appears that anti-sweatshop campaigns do the trick. A 2010 paper from Ann Harrison and Jason Scorse in the American Economic Review. They showed that campaigns in Indonesia led to large wage increases for workers without significant unemployment.

Wages in Indonesian TFA [textiles, footwear, and apparel] factories were very low prior to the onset of the anti-sweatshop campaigns; vendors for Nike were able to implement significant wage increases before even approaching the average wages across the Indonesian manufacturing sector.

The big name brands make for the best targets, say the authors. Their higher profit margins and brand recognition make it both easier for campaigners to raise public outcries and for the companies to enact changes that benefit the most number of peopole.

On the other side, the same research shows that there are some costs. Namely that the anti-sweatshop campaigning did lead to a decline in profits, a reduction in productivity growth and the closure of plants by smaller exporters.

Meanwhile a sweatshop fire killed over 100 workers in November and the building collapse killed what now stands at 244 people and the number keeps going up. As outcries pour out on social media, others are less optimistic about real change.

“Garment entrepreneurs are above law here. There is hardly any example of an owner being prosecuted for this kind of outright murder,” said Babul Akhter, head of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation, to AFP. “The Western retailers are also complicit because they give a blind eye to the manufacturers shoddy practices. Like manufacturers, these retailers are also using Bangladesh’s army of cheap labourers as money making machines,” he said.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]