When working conditions are bad, point the finger at local authoritiesby Jagdish Bhagwati / April 2, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
The horrific consequences of inadequate safety standards and enforcement of provisions such as keeping exit doors open are illustrated, alas, all too well in the fatalities caused by the recent fires in garment factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Perhaps what is especially appalling about these deaths is that they could have been so easily avoided.
The public outcry against such deplorable working conditions in the 21st century is loud and clear, and rightly so. But strangely, consumer movements and media reports in the west have chosen quite the wrong target for their finger-pointing. Global retailers such as Walmart, which outsourced production that eventually ended up in these factories, are really not the culprits here, nor are the consumers in the west who purchase high-street fashion. There is only one place where the buck can and should stop: local and national authorities responsible for safeguarding the health and safety of their workers. They repeatedly fail to hold greedy and/or careless entrepreneurs throughout their countries to account.
Efforts to blame global retailers for local disasters can be both unfair and dangerous. The global high-street and supermarket chains, in these instances, did not own the factories where the tragedies occurred. They were simply outsourcing production. It is not the place of foreign corporations to monitor or dictate how independent local production units are run. Nor can they be held responsible for appalling safety and working conditions in local firms, small and big, from which several other inputs are bought or on whose many products the wages paid by the foreign firms are spent.
Had the global companies been direct owners, or operated the production units as their subsidiaries, the matter would have been quite different: failure to comply with national and local standards for labour safety would have rendered the retailers legally culpable for the damage caused. And where local standards are non-existent, it may even be fair to assign blame to foreign firms for not implementing labour standards for safety—eg ensuring that exit doors are always kept unlocked, providing fire extinguishers, or sullying goggles to workers located near blast furnaces and actually checking whether they wear them—that have become a norm of good entrepreneurship in many developed countries. But this was not the case. Wrongful blame allocation is moreover not just unfair; it is potentially dangerous for two reasons.