Don’t blame consumers for the Bangladeshi factory disaster – blame multi-nationals


8:40 am - May 10th 2013

by Owen Tudor    


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Ever since the disaster at the Rana Plaza textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, some commentators have been trying to guilt-trip cash-strapped western consumers for the terrible conditions of workers in Bangladesh’s Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector, where wages are as low as £27 a month.

We’ve been told that our insatiable desire for cheap clothing is what keeps wages down, and working conditions so poor that factory fires are endemic and corners cut so badly that buildings collapse, as Rana Plaza did.

But we think cash-strapped consumers aren’t the problem, and the TUC have researched and published a quick graphic to explain:

T-shirt graphic

The suggestion that consumers are to blame struck us as a bit too convenient. So we asked the textile unions in Bangladesh how much their members were paid to make a t-shirt.

Believe it or not, there’s actually a term for how long it takes a textile worker to run up a basic t-shirt: the ‘Standard Minute Value’ or SMV. And the time it takes is 10.565 minutes. That’s a rough estimate, presumably!

Textile workers usually work over 200 hours a month, producing nearly six t-shirts every hour. So the princely wage they receive for each t-shirt is roughly 2p. We’ve found costs in high street shops ranging from £2 to £10, with the archetypal t-shirt mentioned in several reports costing £6.

So the price you’re charged for a t-shirt has nothing to do with the wages of the textile workers who made it. To double their wages would increase the production cost of a basic high-street t-shirt by 2p.

That all suggests that someone’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes about who’s really responsible for the low wages and poor health and safety standards in Dhaka’s RMG sector, and it’s the global brands and manufacturers who set the prices.

Bizarrely, some of them have insisted that they have no control over wages, hours of work, factory safety and the like. But they can determine the time it takes to manufacture a t-shirt down to three decimal places and determine what the stitching on the hems looks like! Pull the other one!

We’re supporting the global union for textile workers, IndustriALL, who are demanding that global brands, retailers and manufacturers sign up to an agreement on health and safety and wages. You can support them by by taking this e-action.

Crucially, workers in Bangladesh need the right to join a union and the right to negotiate terms and conditions with their employers. But they also need to work in safety, as the International Labour Organisation has insisted.

The people who should be feeling guilty are the people who run those global multinationals and the Government of Bangladesh. Not shoppers like you, struggling to get by on wages that are also not increasing, while the costs of food, fuel and accommodation continue to rise.

Workers everywhere need dignity at work, based on decent wages and decent jobs.

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About the author
Owen Tudor is an occasional contributor to LC. He is head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department and blogs more regularly at the Touchstone blog.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,South Asia ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments


The blame solely lays with the GREEDY owner of the property and architects, including the Bangladesh local and central government for being so useless and corrupt.

No point in blaming anyone else because all these products are cheap and cheerful ending up in the garbage bin after a couple of uses.

That’s also the other problem : All this crap made in china, Bangladesh and all the other so called poverty/poor countries turns out rubbish that is not fit for a charity shop. Even when you go into high street shops the clothing hanging on the rails/racks already looks shabby, crinkled, creased and very cheap looking.

You get what you pay for. If you want quality and something that lasts after two or three washes look at the labels and pay the extra.

Only the other ay we brought our daughter a beautiful looking dress that was made in India and after she wore it once the seams and other parts were falling apart. I could not even be bothered to take it back to the shop as I felt that I made that poor judgment and got what I deserved.

Next time we will shop more wisely and pay the extra. You never know, making that choice may also save some lives and limit slavery !

2. Gallbladder

Why should you blame multinationals? Aren’t the people in Bangladesh, including their government officials, grown-up adults who should be running their own country according to the rules and regulations they have themselves made up?

There is one thing in Bangladesh that is much worse than workers being exploited by multinationals. It’s the many workers who are not exploited by multinationals.

Mr Grunt: “The blame solely lays with the GREEDY owner of the property”

I’m not disputing they are to blame and should be punished – but there will always be greedy and reckless people; the only way to stop them owning lethally unsafe buildings is to create a situation where making lots of money out of doing so isn’t possible.

Mr Grunt: “including the Bangladesh local and central government for being so useless and corrupt.”

I doubt it would be possible for the Bangladeshi government to introduce effective regulation of the clothing industry, largely because that industry is financially far bigger than the government. If they are not corrupt, such a powerful lobby will easily find a way to install someone who is corrupt. In the unlikely event that fails, the corporation is quite free to evade any court judgement or law by just leaving the country (taking the jobs with it) and find a more corrupt one.

What is needed is for governments in developed countries like ours – who actually do hold significant sway over companies whose HQ is in their jurisdiction, even if they’re frequently reluctant to use it – to get a grip of the situation.

“That all suggests that someone’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes about who’s really responsible for the low wages and poor health and safety standards in Dhaka’s RMG sector, and it’s the global brands and manufacturers who set the prices. ”

Err, no.

Average wages in a society are set by the average productivity in that society. Textile wages in Bangladesh are low because the vast majority of the Bangladeshi economy is low productivity.

This is why the textile workers get 12 p an hour…..and also the people offering haircuts get 10 or 12 p an hour. Whereas here in the UK the hairdressers get £8 or £10 an hour. Because all of the other people around them in the society are more productive.

I’d love to believe this, not least because I’m sitting here wearing a £4 T-shirt from George. But that 2p figure is, in itself, pretty meaningless. What are the non-wage costs of employing those people? What about the costs of employing the people who pick the cotton? Transport it? Build the machines that process it? Manufacture and transport the dyes? Design, build, maintain and inspect the buildings in which these garments are produced? Design the garments themselves? Transport the finished garments? Maintain the vehicles in which they’re transported? Maintain and make safe the roads on which they drive? Of course you can look at one link in a rusty chain and say ‘it wouldn’t take much to sort that out’, but what about the rest of the chain?

Assuming the multinational selling me a £6 T-shirt renounced greed and sought to make only a modest profit, what would that T-shirt cost me if *everyone* involved in getting it onto the shelf, directly or indirectly, was paid a decent wage; and if the multinational was meeting its wider social responsibilities by paying a decent rate of tax in the countries in which it operates?

I’m not saying corporate greed *isn’t* the main problem here. For all I know, multinationals are making a £2 net profit on every £6 T-shirt and could still make £1.80 if they (and their suppliers/subcontractors) paid fair wages and fair taxes across the board. On the other hand, maybe they’re making a 20p net profit and would see that turn to a £2 loss if they did so – in which case it *is* low prices rather than excess profits that are the problem. Hence the meaninglessness, in isolation, of that 2p figure.

6. Robin Levett

@OP:

We’re supporting the global union for textile workers, IndustriALL, who are demanding that global brands, retailers and manufacturers sign up to an agreement on health and safety and wages.

Three issues there; but only one is mentioned in the graphic. What would it cost to provide a safe system of work? That’s the nub of the issue.

7. Richard W

You can’t just make a blunt comparison between the wages of production assembly workers and the end sale price of a product. Doing that is assuming that only the assembly of the product is adding value. A t-shirt leaving an assembly line in Bangladesh only has a value of X pence, not £6. Everything else in the supply chain also adds value to achieve the final sale price that an end consumer pays. Transport, distribution, marketing, advertising, branding and retailing also add value. Leave all of those things out and the t-shirt would still only have a value of a few pence, but it would be stuck in Bangladesh and not in a shop window.

I don’t think there is anything remarkably unique about the textile sector. How much music is sold for bears little relationship to how much a singer gets paid for songs. There is a multitude of other people adding value to the music product before the final sale. Should the music artist capture all the value even though many other people helped to deliver a sellable product?

A farmer growing potatoes is adding value to the inputs required to grow potatoes. However, there is a big difference between the “worth” of potatoes sitting caked in mud on the back of a tractor wagon in a field. Then speaking about “worth” of the same potatoes on a supermarket shelf. Chinese manufacturing only captures about 2-3% of the value of the final price for assembling Apple electronic products. However, just assembling the various bits is not adding the real value to the product. All the firms involved in the research and design of the component parts, distribution and marketing added the real value to the Apple product. Textiles are really just the same as any product with extensive supply chains. I am not saying that Bangladeshi textile workers could not be paid more, just that crudely looking at final sale price is deceptive.

8. Daniel Factor

Excactly! I am sick of these middle class well off campaigners lecturing ordinary people on low incomes about buying “cheap” clothes. It’s these greedy companies which are the problem !

There will always be exploitation in markets, that’s the nature of the beast.

10. Tremor Mendous

In an unsurprising turn of events the multinationals and their paid stooges (politicians) try to turn the blame back to the consumer.

Funny how ‘capitalists’ forget ‘capitalism’ when it suits them.
From the bankers who wanted bailing out – to the corporations who now think that the ‘rational consumer’ – which is the key to capitalism – now acts irrationally and doesn’t buy the best value for money items which they sell!

Fucking hypocrites


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