Happy International Workers’ Day! This will be a quick post, since my laptop seems to be celebrating May Day with a slow-down and occasional work stoppage. Mostly I have been wanting to post this first one:
(1) Shame on Matt Yglesias: Slate columnist Matt Yglesias has been getting some well-deserved criticism for a truly rancid post he wrote after the recent factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, which killed more than 300 workers. One’s stomach starts to turn just reading the title of the post: Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and Thats’ Ok. Brace yourself:
It’s very plausible that one reason American workplaces have gotten safer over the decades is that we now tend to outsource a lot of factory-explosion-risk to places like Bangladesh where 87 people just died in a building collapse.* This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States.
I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum. …
Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. …
The contributors to the comments section do a good job of pulling apart his argument, but a few notes: (1) American garment factories got a lot safer–for a while, anyway–following the outrage over the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and years of militant labor organizing against sweatshops. (Yglesias has a link that supposedly substantiates his initial claim, to a post he did about the (not huge!) decline in workplace fatalities since 1992–which he posted just after the West, Texas fertilizer factory explosion! No rest for apologists for rapacious, deregulated capitalism (and no sense of tactful timing, either).) (2) How exactly is garment production as inherently dangerous as logging or trucking? And does garment work really pay a premium? The whole point of sweatshops, from the point of view of this scoundrel Sohel Rana and his backers at Wal-Mart and Benetton, is that you can save on workplace safety *and* on wages. (3) To back up his idea that Bangladesh is better off for sweatshops, he links to a graph showing an increase in the country’s per-capita GDP (though the graph is not sourced). But does that doesn’t say much about how that increase is distributed–it could all be going into Sohel Rana’s pockets.
These are like Nicholas Kristof’s arguments for sweatshops, which John Miller has demolished in the pages of D&S over the years. (My favorite is the notion that they are ok because workers work there voluntarily. So as long as slavery is prohibited, anything goes in the workplace?) After his initial post produced an uproar, Yglesias did a follow-up post that was a mixture of backpedaling, non-apology, and whining about being misunderstood (he tweeted that “no one” had responded to his actual thesis–which was plain false, unless his real thesis was somehow secret).
We have the blogosphere and commentariat excoriating Yglesias for justifying poor safety in developing-world factories in the wake of a factory collapse killing 300 (ok, he only knew about 80 when he first did the post); we have Rogoff and Reinhart whining about getting “hate-filled, even threatening, e-mail messages,” and being blamed for unemployment and worse, because of their now-discredited paper on debt and the need for austerity (disclosure: I did suggest that they are partly to blame for unemployment in Europe and hunger among Greek children). Now we have this image from today’s NYT, of demonstrators in Savar, angry about Sohel Rana, owner of Rana Plaza, the building that collapsed killing more than 300:
And here is Sohel Rana:
The bloodlust is chilling, but if we can pretend that they would round him up for a people’s tribunal that would lead to workplace safety regulations and enforcement (ok, while we’re fantasizing–safe worker-owned factories), the image of the protesters with sticks is pretty cool. (And can we imagine them protesting outside of Matt Yglesias’s and Nick Kristof’s homes?)
(2) Shame on Benetton and The Children’s Place: According to a piece on the factory collapse in today’s Times, Retailers Split on Contrition After Collapse of Factories, we learn that the low-end UK retailer Primark has acknowledged that one of its suppliers was on the second floor of the building, and pledged to contribute to a fund to compensate victims and families. Meanwhile, the tony and PC retailer Benetton, pioneer of “cause marketing,” and The Children’s Place, among other retailers, tried to dodge responsibility:
The Children’s Place, a retail chain based in Secaucus, N.J., that operates 1,100 stores, said that although a garment factory inside Rana Plaza had produced apparel for it, “none of our apparel was in production” there “at the time of this terrible tragedy.”
Customs documents show that over the past eight months, the New Wave factory inside Rana Plaza had made more than 120,000 pounds of clothing that had been sent in 21 shipments to the Children’s Place. A two-ton shipment arrived in Savannah, Ga., on April 5.
The Cato Corporation, a retailer of women’s clothing that has more than 1,300 stores in 31 states, also played down any link to the building. In a statement, Cato said New Wave Bottoms, also located there, “was a factory of one of our vendors.”
“However, we did not have any ongoing production at the time of the incident,” the statement said.
New Wave Bottoms has shipped more than 90,000 pounds of apparel to Cato since November, customs documents show, with nine tons arriving at the Port of Charleston in South Carolina in February.
After Bangladeshi labor groups said they had found labels of Benetton clothing in the rubble, Benetton initially denied using any factories in the building. But as more labels and documents showing Benetton orders were found and publicized, the company revised its response, saying it had placed only a one-time order there and had severed ties with that factory.
These companies can join Kristof, Rogoff, Reinhart, and Yglesias in the May Day Hall of Shame.
For some good news on the sweatshop front, see item 2 of my last post, about the victory against Adidas in the PT Kizone Indonesia back-pay struggle. Good thing the activists at United Students Against Sweatshops don’t listen to the likes of Kristof and Yglesias.
That’s it for now.