After the factory disaster on the outskirts of Dhaka on Wednesday, in which a collapsing building killed more than 300 people (with many still missing), some have expressed concern about the inadequacy of safety standards in such factories in poor countries that supply cheap goods to Western outlets. One journalist who did so was David Blair in the Telegraph, where he wrote, among other things:
Campaigners say that retailers do carry a burden of responsibility. If you are going to make money by selling products on the high street, you have an obligation to ensure a basic minimum of decency in the conditions in which they are produced. That was recognised as long ago as 1802, when the first Factory Act was passed limiting the hours that British women and children could work.
Today, globalisation means that the seamstresses who make our clothes are not working in Lancashire or Nottingham, but in Bangladesh or India. These women live far away, but they are equally worthy of a sense of obligation.
"Legally, as businesses in the UK, the responsibility of the retailers is only to their shareholders," says Clare Lissaman from the Ethical Fashion Forum. "But morally, if they are making their money off the backs of people who are dying, then absolutely they have a responsibility."
On the other hand, several commentators have argued that the benefits of globalization, including to those having to work in unsafe conditions, clearly outweigh such moral qualms. Among these commentators are Matt Yglesias, Tom Chivers and Alex Massie. There are differences of detail in the way the three of them present the case, but they express some common central themes as well. Thus, Matt thinks 'it's entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different - and, indeed, lower - workplace safety standards than the United States', and this is because, in his view, 'there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans'. The same thing is said by Tom - that it comes down to the choices made by the workers concerned: 'those people working those awful jobs are doing so, finally, out of choice. Not a nice choice - their options were not good but a choice: work in a sweatshop, or work for a local employer (if there is one), or try to subsist without an employer.' And Alex for his part emphasizes the point repeatedly. He writes:
Some 45% of Bangladeshis work in agriculture, many of them still, alas, on terms little better than subsistence farming. By contrast, working in a clothing factory is, relatively speaking, an attractive option.
We might deplore the conditions in which they are compelled to work but that should not blind us to the fact that, like it or not, these are still preferable to the alternatives realistically available to them.
Life, however nasty, in these cities is preferable to the miseries of rural poverty. Similarly, life working in what we deem a sweatshop is, for millions, preferable to the alternatives available to them.
Alex plainly feels some discomfort over his own argument, asking, 'Is it callous to think that industrial accidents - even tragedies - are, to put it in unfortunate terms, a price worth paying for this improvement?' and answering that perhaps it is; but then reiterating that it is a price which Bangladeshis themselves are prepared to pay.
What strikes me, however, is the unqualified way in which all three of them arguing this case present the choices available to workers facing less than adequate safety standards at work as if there were some natural context of choice (as defined perhaps by globalized markets?), one unconstrained by anything else, to do, for example, with law, morality, institutional checks of one kind and another, or cultures of employment, good professional practice and workplace welfare. It's as if capitalism - called by Alex 'a brutal mistress' - came into the world and now subsists there without any institutional or cultural context, and the choice of a worker took place in a vacuum and just had to be accepted at face value. Yet, this has never been so. Markets whether local, national, regional or globalized have always been subject to legal and other institutional influences, permitting some practices, forbidding others; this is the case in richer countries now, it has been in the past of those same countries, and it is not clear why Bangladeshi workers should not also be subject to suitable protections. Where workers in poorer countries are not subject to relevant protections, neither is it obvious why campaigns to improve things shouldn't be waged and supported. The campaigns may be for factory legislation in the countries involved, or they may be to impose legal obligations on firms in wealthier countries profiting from cheap labour elsewhere, but either way it's hard to see what should restrain us from favouring such reforming efforts.
This is not a question of being forced to accept or reject globalization in a wholesale way. One can think, as Alex does, that globalization has been a great success, and still press for better working conditions in countries that need them. Tom appears to recognize this point when he writes 'This is not to say that we shouldn't try to make things better for workers, everywhere in the world. Of course we should. But it needs to be done in the acceptance of a simple fact about humans: most of the time, we try to make or save money.' Which is, once again, to advert to the free market as sovereign and uncontrollable, when in fact it can always be and most often is set about by legal and cultural limits. Tom also says that to imagine we can change bad (cost-cutting) behaviour through campaigning is 'utopian thinking'. One thing or the other: either we can try to make things better or we can't. Wanting to eradicate the human temptations that lure people into profiting from the unsafe working conditions of others may well be utopian; wanting to put in place limits that curb what they may freely do without incurring penalties is not only not utopian; we have seen it happen time and again in democratic societies.
Finally, if we are to gauge accurately what workers in Bangladesh want and therefore the choices they would prefer to make to the ones they have to make, we must surely pay some attention to the large protests that have been set off in Dhaka by the lethal collapse of the Rana Plaza buiding. There doesn't seem like any good reason to restrict one's conception of free choice to the way people express themselves through employment decisions. Human beings have a wide range of means of expression, amongst these political acts like voting, demonstrating, writing to the press, blogging, going on strike, and so forth.