FOR A WEEK, rescuers in Bangladesh have sifted through the wreckage of an eight-story garment factory, listening to the cries of people trapped in the rubble, smelling the stink of rotting bodies, consoling the families who came to look for loved ones whom they will probably never see alive again. More than 400 deaths are confirmed, and that total will surely increase.
Both Western consumers and the companies that serve them must respond to this tragedy. Primark, a European chain that got some of its clothes from a factory housed in the building that collapsed, has insisted that it has a superior ethics policy, working with the Ethical Trading Initiative, a third-party standard-setting organization, and conducting thousands of audits in recent years.
However, its methods didn’t work. The company says it will pay more attention to building safety in the future. But this episode should prompt a thorough reexamination of corporate ethics codes and the groups that companies tap to monitor compliance. The public, meanwhile, should demand to see the results.
At the same time, Western consumers and policymakers should take care not to do more harm than good for Bangladeshi workers. Limits to trade or demands for the immediate application of unrealistically high labor standards would have that effect.
Inexpensive labor in population-dense Bangladesh has encouraged companies to source ready-to-wear clothing from factories in and around its sprawling capital, Dhaka. The result has been brisk economic growth. Bangladesh’s per capita GDP has more than tripled since 1987. The relatively small country — it’s about the size of New York state — now exports more apparel than does its massive neighbor, India, and millions of Bangladeshis derive their livelihoods from the booming industry. It’s no surprise, then, that the government seems committed to preserving the export economy.
It’s good that lower clothing prices raise living standards of the poor in Western countries. It’s also good that, in the process, workers in developing nations have access to jobs. They accept relatively low wages by Western standards, but the result is better living standards than they would have had otherwise.
The keys to improving the country’s labor standards — and to propelling future prosperity — are mostly in Bangladesh. Though wages are still very low, the Dhaka government significantly raised the minimum wage a few years ago and may do so again soon. Labor unrest, too, has cropped up, which could well lead to higher standards. Most important, as it strikes the balance between growth and labor protections, the government must develop the capacity to enforce its own rules. The building that collapsed last week did not comply with existing codes. According to the rules already in place, no one should have been working there when it collapsed.