Bangladesh: What can ensure better working conditions?

More than a dozen brands plan to sign a five-year contract that requires they help pay for fire safety and building improvements.

Questions:

1. As some major retailers joined Bangladesh safety plan would you say it may have some impact on the working condition in Bangladesh?

2. The fact is that we enjoy products from countries like Bangladesh. Perhaps it a bit exaggeration but would you say that international community, e. g. EU, is somehow obliged to push for better conditions of labor force in countries like Bangladesh or not, and why?

Answers:

Richard Locke, Professor, Head of the MIT Political Science Department, Deputy Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1. I believe that this initiative could certainly help. When global brands and large retailers get together and collaborate on programs focused on improving health and safety in the garment factors they source from, this is certainly a step forward. Many of the global brands and retailers already have good programs in place that could be diffused. Building up the capabilities of local producers in Bangladesh is key. But this is not enough. The government of Bangladesh needs to develop its own capabilities to enforce its laws. Private actors like retailers and global brands can help with this capability building but can not substitute the government in enforcing national labor, health and safety laws and regulations. In short, the safety plan is a good step forward but it, in and of itself, will not solve this problem.

2. Absolutely. I believe that consumers and governments in the EU (but also the US) need to both encourage global brands to ensure better working conditions in the factories they source from and help these factories achieve these goals. This could be accomplished through a combination of trade restrictions, chain of custody regulations, and foreign assistance/capability building programs.

Günseli Berik, Professor, Economics Department, University of Utah

In short, this is a good move, will help some workers in B, but will require an international effort to regulate working conditions everywhere, not just in the bottom tier. The EU would have some clout, but global minimums need to be enforced everywhere, sensitized to context. Where capital is internationally mobile, there is always an incentive to find (make) another place as the location for lowest costs and abuses and leave B to produce there.

These are all the right steps for change–remove obstacles to union rights, a structure to negotiate wage increases, buyer-funded building safety improvements. My  skepticism has to do with the likely next step, if these measures are all implemented: The small increase in costs could dampen employment growth in B and shift some orders to the next lowest cost producer (Pakistan?).  Will the same buyers work on safety there as well? We need an international system of minimums, upheld by governments, international entities ( ILO, EU).

Katie Quan, Professor, Associate Chair of the Labor Center, University of California, Berkeley

1. The Bangladesh safety plan signed by retailers like PVH and H&M is designed to go beyond existing voluntary codes of conduct, which quite obviously have not worked, as evidenced by the more than 1100 deaths in the recent Rana Plaza building collapse and the over 500 deaths from fires in recent years.  The new program will include higher standards, greater transparency, and legal accountability—all of which can greatly improve conditions.  It would also be important to improve labor rights, so that workers can bring complaints and organize unions without fear of termination or reprisals.

2. Consumers benefit from cheaper prices of garments produced in low wage countries like Bangladesh, so they are morally obligated to decide whether they want to support the production of garments that are made with decent labor conditions, or not.  In the past 20 years, consumers have had a tremendous effect on retailers of garments, and pressured brands like Nike, Gap, etc. to accept responsibility for the standards under which their clothing is produced, even in contracting factories.  Today consumers demand that their food be labeled, organic, and ethically sourced; and they are willing to pay extra for it. Why shouldn’t they also be willing to support healthy and safe working conditions for the workers who make their clothes?

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