How to get Bangladeshi workers first world safety standards


9:20 am - May 3rd 2013

by Left Outside    


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Move them to the first world. There’s your one sentence answer, but if brevity’s not your thing stick with me.

Obviously, calling for workers globally to have the same safety standards, and yesterday, isn’t a serious proposal. I’d put the “globally unified workplace health and safety” in the same category as “open borders” something that isn’t going to happen, but something useful to endorse and promote because it moves the overton window.

But you rarely find people advocating open borders as a solution to the world’s problems. You even get general good eggs like Martin Wolf arguing the concerns of foreigners should be afforded zero weight when deciding policy at the national level. This is despite the fact that open borders solves most of the world’s problems.

First of all, Bangladesh. Last month’s factory collapse is a tragedy, an ongoing tragedy. While you’ve forgotten about it and moved on with ECB rate cuts or whatever families are still seeing their relatives’ bodies being pulled from the wreckage, last hopes of survivors being rescued evaporating.

Why would workers put up with such awful conditions? This isn’t, as Matt and Tim argue, that this is their choice and a rational decision, that a life is worth less here than there. The reasons workers suffer under such conditions is because they don’t have another choice. But a set of choices isn’t neutral or natural, it is created.

What creates those conditions? Well at one level grinding rural poverty creates those conditions. As Matt Yglesias points out in a better post, Bangladesh now is poorer than the US was at a comparative level of development. In the US American workers could escape to the (stolen) countryside and set up their own homestead. This practice and the threat of leaving has meant that the US has pretty much always been a high wage country.

This “exit” option is denied to Bangladeshis now. Not because their rural population is high and productivity is poor, as Yglesias implies. Who wants to move to the Bangladeshi countryside other than douchebags on their gap yah? Bangladeshi wages, living conditions, safety standards are held down by immigration controls.

In the 18th and 19th century the threat of exit boosted American workers’ wages whether they left or not. The same is true today. In Lithuania the wages of those left behind by emigrants rose in response as (specifically single male) workers became more likely to leave. Contrary to popular opinion, a world of open borders gives the workers bargaining power. The threat of exit is important and works. Hundreds of years of history proves it.

I said earlier “move them to the first world”, but that’s too simple. I meant “let some of them move to the first world and they’ll do fine, but the conditions of those left behind will also improve because their threats finally become credible.” Those textiles workers weren’t slaves, but they weren’t free either. Free people don’t make the choice they had to, to go to work that day.


Photo by Photo taken by Sharat Chowdhury. Used under terms and conditions of creative commons license.

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About the author
Left Outside is a regular contributor to LC. He blogs here and tweets here. From October 2010 to September 2012 he is reading for an MSc in Global History at the London School of Economics and will be one of those metropolitan elite you read so much about.
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Reader comments


Chinese wages have risen over 8% pa in real terms since 2000.
That’s a real increase of 3x in 13 years.
The biggest and fastest poverty reduction in history.

We need to move Bangladesh itself into the first world…or at least to where China is now.
We do that by buying as much as we can from them.

2. So Much for Subtlety

I said earlier “move them to the first world”, but that’s too simple. I meant “let some of them move to the first world and they’ll do fine, but the conditions of those left behind will also improve because their threats finally become credible.”

That is where the argument falls down. Bangladeshis are only as productive as Bangladeshis are productive. They cannot be richer than they make themselves. If you move them to Britain it does not follow that they will do fine. If you move a tiny number of them to the UK, they will do fine, but the more you move, the more their own poor productivity catches up with them. Worse than that in fact as they are even less productive in the UK than they were in Bangladesh – they cannot read instructions for instance and have less social capital.

We can see this with the return of the slum to London. The planning laws are being violated en masse in south London and places like Southall. People are building shacks in their back gardens and renting them illegally to Bangladeshis. Soon parts of London will look like parts of India but with better sewage. They do not live like that because they like it but because they are low wage, low productivity workers. They can’t afford better.

If we allowed even more Bangladeshis to move to the UK, Bangladesh would not because like Britain. Britain would become like Bangladesh.

Those textiles workers weren’t slaves, but they weren’t free either. Free people don’t make the choice they had to, to go to work that day.

On the contrary, they were free which is precisely why they made that choice.

“This isn’t, as Matt and Tim argue, that this is their choice and a rational decision, that a life is worth less here than there.”

That’s not quite what I argue. I do point out that it is simply true that a life (strictly, the Value of a Statistical Life) is valued lower in Bangladesh than it is in richer countries. This is simply because the country is poor.

To change this we would like to make the country rich. And the best way of doing that is, as cjcj says, buying the stuff made there. Which has much the same effect of your move some of the population: it increases the competition for the profits that can be made from employing the labour there. Under such competition wages and conditions improve.

One for cjcj though: the rise in Chinese wages is more like 6 x since 2000.

4. Luis Enrique

good point – bargaining power is all about your outside option.

for those interested in migration, here’s a great free book on the topic.

http://international.cgdev.org/publication/9781933286105-let-their-people-come-breaking-gridlock-global-labor-mobility

5. Planeshift

As much as I love this article, it has a slight flaw in it.

The UK has a not insignificant population of people of Bangladehsi origin, and familiy ties and so on have meant that the population has always had a fairly realistic exit option for the UK. Furthermore other exit options used by people in Bangladesh include the Arabian penisular and US.

I think to fully demonstrate the link here you would have to demonstrate that increasingly tighter immigration controls in the UK for those outside the EU have correlated with a decline in safety standards and working conditions over say the past decade.

The real problem here is class not nationality, Bangladehsi’s exploit their own, the British exploit their own.

I like the way the article set out its case in that wide ranging way. And of course it’s open to lots of criticism and counter suggestions.
Bangladesh is a bit of a basket case in many ways, hampered as it is with it’s feudal structure and corruption. As well as its backwardness with culture and religion. As far as I’m aware, wealth and power depends on having connections to those who are in government, and when your side are out of power, you do your damndest to bring down the government and get your side in, by any means possible. Including bringing about strikes, enforced by throwing bombs into businesses not participating. I went there for a couple of weeks a decade ago and they were having these 72 hour ”hartals” (strikes) then, and I remember, a bomb was thrown on to a bus, another into a bank that was open, and even a tricycle rickshaw had a bomb thrown on to it because it was taking passengers and not obeying the strike. And both BNP and Awami League backers do this when out of power.
It’s just a deeply corrupt and dreaful country.
They don’t care about their own people. At the main railway station in Dhaka, you can see people who should be in hospital pathetically begging and showing festering wounds on their bodies, while everyone just walks past and ignores them.
I saw a yong girl wearing only knickers, going from dustbin to dustbin pulling out bits of cardboard and putting it into a sack for resale, and all the shopkeepers (young men) on the road, didn’t bat an eye lid. I gave her five taka I remember, but thought even doing that I was marking myself out as a weirdo so just had to walk away.

8. Step Left

What they need is an effective militant labour movement.

9. Richard W

“In the US American workers could escape to the (stolen) countryside and set up their own homestead. ”

It’s a neat theory but I don’t find it very plausible. Sounds like you are making an almost reverse “Lewis turning point” argument. There is a lot of empirical evidence that industrial development and wages follow a LTP pattern. Basically in the early stages of development industry can exploit workers by suppressing wages from abundant agricultural workers. Cheap labour in this stage is the most important factor of production. Eventually the stock of agricultural workers is exhausted and industry has to compete with each other for workers. Wages rise and industry has to add new forms of capital in order to generate returns from productivity improvements. National average productivity rises raising all wages. I have never heard of early development industry having to raise wages to stop workers moving to the agricultural sector.

U.S. agriculture was always very productive through the sheer scale of fortuitous natural bounties. Slavery was an additional factor but even without slavery it would have been very productive. Therefore, U.S. average productivity would have been higher even before the development of industry. Remember wages are set through average productivity, not sector specific. That is the thing people often can’t get their head around because they think of specific sectors. Nowadays if the construction industry makes productivity improvements, that raises wages in the unrelated IT industry because the economy’s average productivity rises. So the U.S. was starting from a lower price level and higher wage level. They always had higher wages because agriculture was always productive.

SMFS is talking poppycock about Bangladeshi productivity. What determines Bangladeshi textile workers wages is average productivity in Bangladesh. It does not mean an individual textile factory in Bangladesh is any less productive than one in the U.S. That is a fallacy of composition. The textile factory in Bangladesh could be equally as productive as the U.S. factory, but the wage level will be lower because national average productivity is lower. If they compete in the same global market the Bangladeshi factory will be profitable and the U.S. factory unprofitable.

Bangladesh does have safety standards. The problem in this case is not the lack of them, but the lack of enforcement. That is not the fault of Primark or anyone in the west. It is the fault of the authorities in Bangladesh itself.

11. Churm Rincewind

“…the fact that open borders solves most of the world’s problems…”

Gosh. That’d be good. Famine, religious strife, disease, violence, and so on (add your own world problem here), all abolished by a stroke of the pen.

Just wondering then why Joe Hill had to die and all those unions had to fight the bosses rather than just up and homestead out west.

13. So Much for Subtlety

9. Richard W

SMFS is talking poppycock about Bangladeshi productivity.

Strange that you have more or less paraphrased what I said then.

What determines Bangladeshi textile workers wages is average productivity in Bangladesh.

Indeed. Which is determined by the average productivity of Bangladeshi workers as a whole. Which is strongly linked to their level of education. Which is low.

It does not mean an individual textile factory in Bangladesh is any less productive than one in the U.S. That is a fallacy of composition. The textile factory in Bangladesh could be equally as productive as the U.S. factory, but the wage level will be lower because national average productivity is lower.

Could be, but actually it is unlikely to be. Because the technical skills are somewhat lacking in Bangladesh such as would be needed. But let me agree it is possible that some factories may be as productive. But wages are determined by the productivity of workers on average. So it hardly matters does it?

If they compete in the same global market the Bangladeshi factory will be profitable and the U.S. factory unprofitable.

All other things being equal.

Now if you move 50 million Bangladeshi workers to the UK, they will not be able to work in most jobs. Being largely unable to read – often even in their own language – and hence unable to work or maintain complex machines. Their average productivity will be low. So while there are a few of them, the average wages in the UK will not be changed much. But once there are 50 million of them, the average wage will trend to the Bangladeshi average. Not remain where it was.

14. Richard W

@ 13. So Much for Subtlety

“Indeed. Which is determined by the average productivity of Bangladeshi workers as a whole. Which is strongly linked to their level of education. Which is low.”

Yes I agree with that. However, I was taking issue with you suggesting that their national productivity is low because they are Bangladeshi. “Bangladeshis are only as productive as Bangladeshis are productive.” As if their low productivity is related to their ethnicity.

Lots of things other than education affect productivity. Supply chains, infrastructure, transport networks, geography, climate, red tape, corruption, technology and capital equipment. Now, it is possible to make an argument that those things or the lack of them is ultimately connected to the education system. I would see it as more a culture and institution issue but accept that disentangling what factors are dominating is difficult. What I don’t accept is productivity being determined by ethnicity. Although it probably plays a role in determining culture. There is no reason to suppose that illiterate Bangladeshi textile workers operating sewing machines would be any less productive than a western factory with Ph.D. sewing machinists.


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