Bangladeshi Garment Workers and the Perversion of Ethics

May 15, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

For the last few days the newspapers have been filled with stories about how western garment manufacturers will now insist on greater safety for the workers who make their clothes in Bangladesh. They will pay for renovations and reconstructions of the physical plants. What is more, the government in Bangladesh will raise the minimum wage and make unionization easier.

So now Pope Francis and the relatively rich in the developed world (many of whom were among the 900,000 names on a petition to improve things that has been circulated) will be pleased and the demands of their social conscience will be satisfied.

This is another instance of the simplistic pseudo-morality of those who can only see what is right in front of them at the present moment. This attitude is closer to a sympathetic reflex than a reasoned moral judgment.

Consider the following. The cost of garment labor in Bangladesh will rise. When public attention moves elsewhere, western manufacturers will either hire fewer workers or reduce the rate at which they hire workers in Bangladesh. Some many even leave the country. (Remember Bangladesh also has bad infrastructure and political instability making it a marginal place to do business.)

Costs will rise not only because of the costs of improved working conditions but also because a rise in the minimum wage will prevent the compensating-downward adjustment of wages. And the increase of unionization will also raise costs and wages. What Bangladesh has going for it at this particular stage in its development is relatively low wages and globalization. We do not do the Bangladeshis a favor by insisting on even early twentieth-century labor standards in an incredibly backward economy.

The nineteenth-century economist Frederic Bastiat asked us to pay attention to the “unseen” as well as the seen in economic life.  Where will Bangladeshis who do not get to work in the garment factories (or perhaps other factories if the new minimum wage and labor standards set in more widely) go? Where will they get an income? Will people in Western Europe and the United States send them compensatory payments?

Too often, as this case demonstrates, people moralize high standards of living and hence of worker safety. Worker safety is a normal good, that is, as income rises we can afford more of it. To say that people have a right to a certain level of worker safety and a “living wage” is an example of the harm the notion of positive rights can do in poor countries – especially when the standards are imported from developed countries.

I am not saying that the death of more than a thousand garment workers isn’t a horrible event. I am not saying that we should not have compassion for these people. What I am saying is that the whole of morality is not about feeling good. It is about doing good. And doing good is a complex affair. It requires attention to the unseen.

16 Responses to “Bangladeshi Garment Workers and the Perversion of Ethics”

  1. Roger McKinney Says:

    Excellent points! The whole point of socialism is to poke out one’s eyes in order not to see the long term consequences of one’s actions.

    From what I have read, the company occupying the building thought it was safe. The building was unsafe because the construction company cut corners and used shoddy materials. How was the building’s owner or occupier to know that had been done? Construction companies can easily hide bad construction. The only ones who would know the building was bad were the construction company and the inspector, who the company bribed to ignore the bad construction.

    This type of corruption is a huge problem throughout the world, but especially in the poorest nations. It’s extremely arrogant of the US and Europe to think they can change the culture of 2/3 of the world and direct their construction methods from the comfort of their first world recliners by pressuring the retail stores they buy clothing from.

  2. Eric Quach Says:

    The author is absolutely correct. What people from developed countries don’t grasp is the concept of opportunity cost.

    A higher opportunity cost will be imposed on the garment workers, if they choose to work else where (for example, in safer conditions). Working in the factories is their best available option.

    This trend has been seen throughout history. During the Industrial Revolution in Britain, demand for industrial workers rose, so farm workers sought work in industry. The working conditions in the factories were poor and dangerous, but it was the workers’ best option. They were able to obtain higher wages working in the factories than working in the fields. The same holds true for the United States.

    As countries become more developed they will be able to implement safer working conditions without much sacrifice.

    Many corporations residing in developed countries are ensuring that their suppliers meet safety requirements because their reputations might be affected when their customers find out how the clothes were made. The corporations are really just looking out for their best interest, not the interests of the workers in developing countries, when they demand better working conditions from their suppliers.

  3. Da Xi Says:

    I agree with the author’s point that we should do good and not do what “feels” good.

    Giving workers in Bangladesh a better wage and working conditions might seem like the best idea ever, but it comes with opportunity costs. For example, the owner might have been able to open another low cost factory and employ a few hundred garment workers, but because of the renovation costs for his old factory, he can’t afford the new one.

    If the people who petitioned for better working conditions were given a choice of either A: Same working condition but 500 more people are given jobs due to opening of a new factory or B: Renovated building, layoffs due to higher operating cost. I am certain that a person would vote for choice A.

  4. Some Links Says:

    […] Mario Rizzo reflects on reactions to the recent factory tragedy in Bangladesh. […]

  5. sharon Says:

    Sharon MacDonald New Zealand. Pay your Bangladesh Garment workers more money you slave drivers. You should be ASHAMED of yourself paying people such pathetic wages. I feel sorry for those woman. Stop being GREEDY and charge more for the clothes. People soon pay up and waste money on cigarettes, drugs, beer, DVDs, movies . People can afford to pay more for their clothes from the Bangladesh Garment makers. You should be paying them a minimum wage of $13.75 an hour what the minimum wage in New Zealand is. A 40 hour week would get you $550.00 a week. Which is $2,200 a Month Gross before Tax is taken out. You should also buy your staff a uniform, shoes, socks, handbag, jacket, hat, blanket, pillow, bed, sheets, Mensuration Leave like they have in Japan for female workers. You could also give your Bangladesh workers bowls of fruit, sandwiches, biscuits, coffee, tea, clean water, sugar, toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet papeer, 7 bath towels, 7 face cloths, 2 bathmats, a shower curtain, 7 handtowels, a doormat, waterproof raincoat, umbrella, gumboots, thick socks, t-shirts, track pants, PJs, sanitary pads, watch, comb, hairbrush, cutlery set, bowls, tea towels, wooden spoon, fry pan, wok,torch with batteries, solar power torch, solar power camping shower to get hot water. Plastic tubs for washing clothes, weeding, washing dishes, mop, plastic bucket, duster, clothes line, pegs, Free clothes from the Bangladesh Garment Factories. Bike, first aid kit, matches, bandages, large candle, matches, hurricane lamp, bedside table, coffee mugs, teaspoons, knife and forks, dessert spoons, pots, dishwashing liquid, laundry powder, washing machine or hand turning camping washing machine. tents, sleeping bags, plastic outdoor resin chairs, You could make a nice garden with nice flowers and plants in it for the Bangladesh Factory workers with a Outdoor table and chairs with a Outdoor Beach Umbrella. Put pottery pot plant holder with nice flowers growing in it for the workers to look at in their rest breaks. Give the workers a Solar powered Radio to listen to while they work. You could cook the Bangladesh Factory workers a meal every day for lunch or dinner. Backpack. slippers. Plastic buckets for doing laundry. Colouring books and crayons for the kids.
    Toys for the kids. STOP BEING SUCH SCROOGES. PAY THE BANGLADESH CLOTHES FACTORY WORKERS MORE MONEY TODAY . This is from the people of the WORLD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    FREEDOM FROM SLAVE WAGES TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Ashley Samuel Says:

    The problem that people in today’s society see is that a higher minimum wage means that there will be less work for people out in today’s world. In Bangladesh, this would bring more jobs and people could live a higher quality of life. The higher minimum wages would create more money flow into the country of Bangladesh as well as give more money to the workers. This is the 21st century we, as the United States should be giving our workers the money they deserve. Paying these workers in foreign countries is cheaper than paying workers in the United States by far.

  7. Mark Says:

    Ummm?!?! I’m guessing Sharon doesn’t understand your argument . . . or economics in general.

  8. michael Says:

    Sharon: Why do you think the clothes are made in Bangladesh? It’s because it’s the cheapest place on earth to make them.

  9. johnberk Says:

    We do not have an ability to be able to even recognize many ethical problems in the contemporary world. Workers in South Asia are one part of that problem, other part would be the animals, and we can continue with many more examples. I still remember the public outcry after one of the female-slaves escaped Honduras and told her story about how clothes had been made there. What happened is exactly what you describe. You need PR to change anything in this world, but poor and speechless don´t have any chance. We are constantly talking about “our” ethical problems, like the current crackstarter campaign in Canada. But what does it mean for the people who are in danger everyday? We are talking about democracy yet we behave like first colonists in Latin America.

    Only a mayor change in the world’s socioeconomic system can help.

  10. Roger McKinney Says:

    Slavery is a criminal problem that needs a solution from the police and courts, not the markets. The ethical issues in Bangladesh probably rise to the level of criminality as a result of corruption, bribes and fraud. It’s arrogant of Americans to think we can determine and enforce criminal justice from the US through our choices in purchasing. And while such attempts may slightly dent the criminal activity, it will punish far more businesses trying to operate ethically.


  11. I have an unrelated question.

    If I am a capitalist in a area with a fixed gold standard and only one coin of gold…And I take that piece of gold and split it into two pieces, half for labor, half for materials. Then if I sell my commodity on the market there is no way I am going to get more gold than I started with, (no profit)…How is this overcome?

  12. Icebear Says:

    Doug,

    You do not get more gold – which is no big deal since it i s ‘only’ a medium of exchange – but you do get more reward in the form of goods and services rendered to you to which you attach a greater satisfaction value than you did to whatever it was you sacrificed in order to earn them.

    You do not get more money, but you receive a net real income.


  13. Amazing! Its genuinely remarkable post, I have got much clear idea
    about from this paragraph.


  14. […] recent Bangladesh factory fire has this air about it. Much to my disadvantage in polite company, I argued that the advocates of “justice for the poor” were ignoring important […]


  15. […] recent Bangladesh factory fire has this air about it. Much to my disadvantage in polite company, I argued that the advocates of “justice for the poor” were ignoring important […]


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