Friday, May 03, 2013

Bangladesh Tragedies

While Labor and Progressives mount pressure on Western Garment Labels to do more in stopping continued disasters in Bangladesh garment factories, ugly side of globalization is surfacing up. The core responsibility of these tragedies squarely lies with Bangladesh Government, its socio-economic structure, powerful interests of garment export houses and the culture of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in the world. It is very densely populated in a restricted habitable region with constant battle against nature - typhoons.  Its national history is short and its birth in 1971 is through a mass tragedy where millions were displaced and around half million civilians were killed. With such traumatic birth pangs and subsequent continued poverty in the liberated nation, socially 'value of Life' in Bangladeshi culture is very low. Centuries of feudal structure, grinding poverty and constant influence of outside powers (British, Indians and now may be China too); have resulted in 'high tolerance to misery' in Bangladeshi population. In short, 'deaths are dime a dozen; so what is the big deal'? - that is the attitude.  It is the Bangladeshi elite, its diaspora and its rulers who need to work to change this culture. It is difficult to judge how far such efforts are taking a root or if those are simply non-existent. But considering the spate of tragedies  it seems a pessimistic situation - i.e. no serious efforts are underway to fundamentally alter the 'culture of accepting such avoidable deaths'.

Traditionally, eradication of poverty and overall prosperity are potent solutions in reducing this culture of 'no value of Life'. Global Garment exports (because China is no more a profitable outsourcing place), relative political stability in recent years, prosperity across the border in India and friendly gestures from China; all those things have helped to bring some bounty to Bangladesh. But the income distribution is extremely skewed. As a result, incentives for 'labor safety' are not at all aligned. Combined with this inequality, entrenching electoral politics have made it very easy for these export houses to 'procure necessary political influence' in continuing 'abuse of Labor'. That is where the core political failure of Bangladeshi rulers is. Garment factory accidents continue to happen because Bangladeshi PM and her cabinet is least interested in taking on the corroding influence of these garment export houses. When few of your own cabinet members are either garment exporters themselves or beholden to these interest groups; you are unlikely to do anything unless you are an astute politician genuinely knowing what needs to be done for the overall welfare of people. This is not an issue only for the ruling party. Same will be the situation with the  Opposition Party too. Essentially across the entire political spectrum corrupting influence of garment export houses is pervasive.

It is not just one industry, but as like neighboring India; all pervading Corruption basically 'saps' any ability of Bangladesh to halt such human tragedies and take basic steps of governance. Tragedies in Bangladesh are consequences of South Asian scourge of Corruption and Crisis of Governance. Faulty and flashy success of Indian Democracy has helped to spread a wrong headed view of democracy in South Asia - democracy is simply equated to winning elections by any means and thereafter in most cases rulers think that as a 'license' to loot the state and continue the exploitation of weaker sections of society without any inclination towards welfare of common people. Agreed, not all politicians are like that in South Asian democracies. But there is preponderance of such politicians across the board.

Given all this and endemic all encompassing corruption, primary job of stopping Labor abuse is with Bangladeshi Government. Global Garment Brands are there to make money, those are answerable to their shareholders while Global Corporate Structure is not created to cater the welfare of poor people. It is not the job of Disney to have the 'factory inspected' and to validate enforcement of 'labor safety practices'. It is the job of factory owners and local authorities. When an outsourcing firm comes to your shore as a customer, the basic commercial premise is all these enforcement and safety issues are handled by factory owners, local government and national governments. Who better to look after  interests of Bangladeshi people apart from their own government? It is not Disney or Gap.

No one is suggesting that these garment labels do not pay more so as some 'margin' is left to pay for basic safety and sound infrastructure. These global brands can also 'incentivize' their payments to outsourcing firms based on how well they treat their workers. Instead of all that, the rush is to give money to families of victims to hush their voices or legally binding techniques to force these commercial organizations into 'welfare arrangements at remote places'. Disneys and Gaps of the world cannot be NGOs to engage with Bangladeshi workers.

Hence, the response of Disney - to simply run away from Bangladesh - seems one credible way out. True, Bangladeshi workers are going to suffer either ways - in absence of corruption free government due to 'collapsing garment factories' or by starvation otherwise because of lack of gainful employment. But at least Western companies and their consumers will not be 'party' to such human tragedies when they do not source from Bangladesh!

There are other countries which can step up to grab the market share - Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, etc. But there is no guarantee that same problems will not arise there too even though Bangladeshi style 'disregard towards Life' may be less prevalent in those societies.

With more Media awareness and continued tighter globalization, it is going to be harder for an outsourcer to ignore such abuses happening at other end of a supply chain. Global Corporations will be  forced to go away from nations which are incapable of getting their house in order. Bangladesh is one such nation and inevitably it will loose the outsourcing market share. Globalized Capitalism is not structured to cater to governing needs of poor population across the globe. That is the job of political structures. Unless these political systems in  poor countries get their house in order, everything else is going to be simply a band aid. 

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