Made in Bangladesh: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Curse of Cheap Labour

Bangladeshi woman

Bangladeshi woman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night, an American friend asked me a question I’ve been asked several times in the last 17 days after the Savar collapse: Do you think I should stop buying clothes that are made in Bangladesh?

The short answer is: No. But there are several things we need to change. We need to engage with the garments industries, and weed out all the trash. Shut them down, if you will, and permanently, not just until they can pay off the next bribe. Simultaneously, and just as crucially, we need to question those corporations that pay such miserly wages for products made here.

I know that those of us who have lived abroad have, at one point or another, fantasized about that 475 USD dress that was on the racks in Anthropologie, at Saks, in the cute little store on Mulberry. We’ve bought those dresses too, some of us will guiltily admit, and then claim that we found them on sales for 200 USD.

Let’s stop right there: these companies, if they can afford to have a sale for 200 USD and still make a profit, are clearly doing something very suspect. It comes down to this: Why are we not questioning that the dress was probably produced for 20 USD, or 2 USD, even? Why aren’t they paying more to buy these dresses? Because they can make a bigger profit, while channeling some of this money to “corporate social responsibility” projects through mammoth organizations like the UN? Don’t get me wrong, I am quite glad that H&M and Marks & Spencer do this. The UN does some great work in Bangladesh, I have begrudgingly come to realize. However, why not give a bigger cut of this money towards the wages of these people themselves? There is this hesitation to believe that poor people can handle their own funds, but Dr. Yunus has long ago proved, quite admirably, that this does not have to be the case, that every human just wants to feel valued.

The next question I was asked was whether I thought the wages were unfair. Is 50, 100, or 150 USD a month unfair? Hell, yes. I won’t lie to you. I won’t even claim that economics decree that such things are necessary. Even if the money goes a long way in this country, the wage itself is indubitably unfair. Land prices in Dhaka match those of New York or London, and the gap between the rich and poor are ridiculously high. A visiting friend made the astute observation that in Bangladesh, either you’re driving the car, or you’re being driven. There’s no middle class. Add that to the fact that the tax levied on a car is 300% of the car’s value, and that nothing works without paying off one stupid and crooked government official or another, to get anything done, and you can see why the discrepancies are even higher.

“Cheap labour” has many sides to the way it’s understood, and executed, by multinational corporations. Of course, I will not go into the deplorable CNN interview by our dear madam Sheikh Hasina. Our leaders fail us continually, there is no doubt about that. We need to question their ridiculous logic just as much as we should question each and every single one of these corporations, insist that they increase and set aside a higher portion of what they’re spending on these clothes, in ensuring that better working standards and better wages for these workers. If we all stop buying Bangladeshi products, we’re jeopardizing a nation that already is at the poorest of the poor. We’re jeopardizing the independence that many women face from the possibility of having an income that cannot be questioned by their spouses or families. We’re questioning their independence and capability to work in an environment that leaves them with few options of how to exert their agency.

Let’s question the corruption, and yes, let’s question how much these people get paid. But boycotting the industry is allowing for all sorts of blisters to fester, pollute, and eventually, maim, kill faster. These crooks have had their day. 900 have already died in Savar, and more bodies will be uncovered in the coming days. In the meantime, every facet of our politics and our daily lives are subject to this corruption: That’s the underlying reason that Rana Plaza was reopened even when wide cracks were found the day before. It’s the reason that the poor get children, as Fitzgerald would say, while the rich get richer.

“Made in Bangladesh” is a label we should all be proud of, while making sure that those tailoring our clothes aren’t exploited through and through, for doing so.


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