What happened in Bangladesh this month was a tragic loss of forlorn, hard working and innocent lives. The inferno at the garment factory in Pakistan and Bangladesh last year, the inhumane working condition in China’s many manufacturing factories or this month’s building collapse at yet again another garment factory forces us, as consumers of these garments, to introspect on the proposition of responsibility and collusion. I have heard many, including myself before I wrote this piece, say that customers such as us should boycott products made in inhumane conditions to demonstrate our jeremiad and compassion. There are even louder voices amongst us that are castigating not only the national governments and the owners of these factories but also the corporate fashion houses, which are outsourcing production to these low wage economic quagmires. So where does the buck stop?
Before I wrote this piece I was torn by this very question. Am I, shopping at the Wal-Mart’s, Express’s, GAP’s and Apple’s of the world, equally responsible for what happened 7000 miles away, or should I fashionably point fingers at these very corporate houses that pamper me with grade-A fashion and affordable technology? After some contemplation and rationalization, I hold neither the corporate houses nor people like me responsible for the tragic events that occurred in Bangladesh. I believe the buck stop with the owners of these factories and the national government that houses them. Countries such as China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan etc.. with their myopic vision of economic development compete is a region known for extremely low labor cost that the west views as a pot of gold. This myopic vision not only blurred their vision of economic sustainability but also forced them to ignore the fundamental protagonists of a viable and robust economy – the workers and the consumers.
It’s not the lack of labor laws but the lack of enforcement of these laws that drives the workforce of these countries to operate in such inhumane conditions. Both the curbing of union power and at times the union itself has made the situation in these “wanna-be” capitalist countries deteriorate with every passing percentage point GDP increase. Blaming corporate houses from the west is distracting us from focusing on the core issue in these countries and is serving as a perfect alibi for the actual culprits. If these corporate houses owned and managed these factories under their own capacity, then it is justified to blame them for not enforcing their western work ethics on their international subsidiaries. But the situation as seen in Bangladesh does not line up with the aforementioned situations. Such Corporate houses provide employment in developing nations, and demonizing them will just alienate investors and cease employment opportunities in countries such as Bangladesh. Also, such a hostile attitude towards western corporate houses will act as fodder to radical protectionist and to the so called ethical consumer, who prefer locally produced goods over those imported from across the borders.
We need to stop this misguided witch-hunt on western consumers and corporate houses and focus on the real issue - improvement and enforcement of labor laws, workplace regulations and labor unions. It would be prudent to draw from the western corporate house’s experiences on developing, enforcing and monitoring safety regulations and legislations rather than antagonize them for frivolous anti-reformist and anti-globalization propaganda. National government must zealously pursue a course of action to elevate safety and working standards and vehemently pursue local corporations who blatantly ignore such legislations for personal gains on the backs of pauperized and innocent workers. Only then will developing countries be able to liberate themselves from the delusion of their social achievement and admonishment of other for their self inflicted anguish.