Shuvo shokal from Dhaka,
It’s one of the enduring mysteries of capitalism that so many consumers appear to be unaware of the connection between cheap labour and cheap goods. So many make a beeline for the latter, rejoice ostentatiously in the acquisition and conveniently ignore the reasons for the cheapness. One doesn’t need to undertake an economics degree to grasp the link between low wages in the production phase and cheap products in the consumption phase. Is the phenomenon borne of blissful ignorance or willful disdain for one’s fellows?
ready-made garment factories
Perhaps the most pressing ambition for me here in Bangladesh was to visit some of the notorious ready-made garment factories. Last weekend Linda and I had the chance to do just that. It’s been a rare privilege.
The collapse of Rana Plaza and the devastating fire at Tazreen two years ago have galvanized the industry here. The owner of Rana Plaza is widely regarded as a rogue. (I would say criminal.) Most industrialists here are not cut from that mould. In fact, they are typically urbane men in their 50s who pride themselves on their success, having taken substantial risks back in the 1980s and 1990s. They are not carefree villains.
On Friday we visited a plant just north of Dhaka – at a locality called Gazipur – where 2000 workers make jumpers for the European market. On Saturday, we visited a huge textile manufacturing complex in Savar (same suburb as Rana Plaza) where 16 000 workers produce jackets and trousers. Both plants are impressive examples of modern manufacturing. They are clean, safe and state of the art. Moreover, there was no hint of secrecy (in contrast to the shameful Nike episodes of the 1990s) and we were allowed to talk to anyone and take photographs at will.
There was no sign of children working. There was absolutely no possibility that the plant was made ready for the visitors, reverting to normal after we were gone. Where necessary, workers wear earmuffs, face masks and steel gloves. Fire extinguishers are dated and obvious. In the Savar plant, the owner showed me the 20-strong well-equipped fire and rescue team which is on standby every shift. They have monthly evacuation drills (usually unannounced) and have doctors and nurses on every floor.
occupational health and safety standards
In short, the occupational health and safety standards are very impressive. (Paula is an American working here on labour relations and she confirms these impressions, having visited many factories here.)
It has to be stated that most of these measures have been forced on the industrialists by the buyer companies, proving the power of consumer sovereignty. (The middle class Poms are demanding more and more ethical product.)
The workers here are woefully underpaid by our standards. Of course, the industry is built on cheap labour as it has been since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The strange thing is that we as consumers in the 21st century seem to be prepared to remove the consideration of wages from the demand for ethical product. It gives us the unseemly sight of talk show host Kathi-Lee Gifford bleating in front of congressional hearings about the inequity of low-wage labour and then – on her TV show – espousing a new frock which is selling for only $30. This apparently passes for intelligent discourse in the US these days.
One chance discovery in the Gazipur plant illustrated a salient point. (Converting to USD for the sake of comparison) the Bangladeshi company produces the sweater for $6, sells it to Marks and Spencer or Debenham’s for $8 (this price includes shipping to the UK). The retail price in London : $60. These shocking numbers speak for themselves. Or do they? Why do so many shoppers choose to ignore the disparity?
We may not be possessed of the exact numbers, but we all know the rough equation. (Don’t we?) If the British consumers were shocked by the Rana Plaza disaster, and have successfully demanded better safety standards, why do they continue to purchase products with such egregious mark-ups?
As Malala writes , with rare perspicacity, “we . . . love shoes but don’t love the cobbler; we love our scarves and blankets but don’t respect the weaver”. I recently watched a YouTube clip of two young Norwegian travellers who had ventured into a clothing factory in Cambodia. The weeping young woman said, “the truth is that we are rich because they are poor”. These two young women have managed to capture my sentiment in two sentences.