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A Bangladesh Boycott Wouldn't Help Workers

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Politics is in every disaster.

Last week, the collapse of the Rana Plaza, a garment factory near the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, led to the deaths of more than 400 workers. With more than 1,000 still missing -- and little hope that any survivors will be found in the rubble -- the number is expected to rise dramatically in the coming days and weeks. The tragedy has made international headlines and is being mentioned alongside some of the worst industrial accidents in history.

The sad truth is that this did not have to happen. Employees had raised concerns about cracks in the building's edifice only days before the collapse. This led police to order an evacuation, but the factory's owners threatened to fire any worker who stayed away. Fearing the loss of their jobs, and assured that they would be safe, they went back; the structure crumbled within a matter of hours.

All of this is a shared responsibility. While the calamity itself stems from the corruption that dominates the Bangladeshi state (more on this below), our desire for cheap clothing -- underpinned by a $9 a week minimum wage rate, the lowest in the world -- gave rise to the working conditions that caused the collapse in the first place. This is also why the vast majority of the 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh -- which collectively employ 3.5 million people -- will continue to be unsafe well into the future.

Seventeen retailers based in the U.S., U.K., France, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Canada sourced clothing produced in the factory. In our own case, Joe Fresh, a discount clothing store owned by Loblaws, has said that a "small number" of its clothes were produced in the collapsed factory. It has now pledged -- along with British-based Primark -- to compensate the victims' families (although specifics about how much will be given remain unclear).

Loblaws could be acting out of a sense of genuine concern. Yet they are likely also anxious to fend off criticism stemming from negative press coverage -- and therein lies the problem.

The cameras will eventually leave Bangladesh, just as they did when a factory fire last November at Tazreen Fashions, near Dhaka, left more than 100 garment workers dead after they were trapped inside by their superiors. In 2005, again in Dhaka, 64 workers lost their lives when a factory collapsed. In these and other cases -- since the 1990s, hundreds have perished either because of collapsed buildings or fires -- increased news coverage came and went.

If waiting for change to happen in this way is bound to prove fruitless, relying on corporations to act is equally naive. A year and half before the fire at Tazreen, shareholders at Wal-Mart -- which bought clothing from the factory -- had the chance to make annual reports on workplace safety mandatory for their clothing suppliers. The proposal was defeated by a margin of almost 50-1. In its argument against requiring the annual safety report, Wal-Mart said such a requirement threatened to place it at a "competitive disadvantage" because it "could ultimately lead to higher costs for Wal-Mart and higher prices for our customers."

To be fair, other companies, such as Gap and Nike, have pushed their suppliers to improve safety conditions. Yet, this is not enough. So what can we do? First, we need to take a step back and be patient.

Where democracy has a long history, the characteristics of good governance -- free and fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of expression, respect for human rights, accountability and transparency -- exist because they have had time to develop.

In countries where democracy is relatively new, the story is very different. In the case of Bangladesh, it suffered under military rule before turning to democracy in 1990. This did not make it democratic, however. Democracy, after all, is hard work. It is far easier to hand out perks to rich supporters and loyal followers who can help secure a victory at the ballot box -- violently or otherwise -- than to try an appeal to voters in an open and honest way. And once the goal of power has been reached, its spoils can be enjoyed.

The garment industry -- a $20-billion a year business that represents more than 75 per cent of Bangladeshi exports -- has been key to this. Many Bangladeshi politicians themselves have plundered state coffers and used that money to enter the garment business. In other cases, wealthy businessmen with ties to the two major parties -- the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party -- have been helped to buy garment factories that were once state-owned at extremely low prices (in 2004, one such company sold for 20 times less than its market value).

Party hacks have been allowed to profit on the backs of the poor too, with state officials looking the other way. This includes Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the collapsed factory, who was arrested a few days ago. He worked for both the AL and BNP by intimidating people to vote for the party that would benefit him the most. For example, unconfirmed reports suggest that the land the destroyed factory was built upon was seized by Rana illegally more than 10 years ago.

Labour laws guaranteeing worker safety exist in Bangladesh. But efforts to improve enforcement are unlikely to come from lawmakers when their interests are protected by the status quo. Public servants also have some ability -- at least officially -- to carry out monitoring. The majority of them, however, have been appointed on the basis of party loyalty rather than merit. As such, they are unlikely to do anything that might cost them their position.

This leaves us with a paradox. Meaningful reform, if it is to come, will only happen if we continue to buy the clothes Bangladeshi workers are making. For one thing, the plight of garment workers -- as bad as it is -- would be even worse back in the rural villages where so many of them once lived. While some earn only $9 a week, in 2010, a wave of protests forced a few companies to pay their workers $12. Though modest, small changes such as this can have a real impact.

Last weekend, renewed demonstrations calling for better pay and working conditions broke out and are continuing. Because the garment industry makes up the core of the Bangladeshi economy, its leaders and business class cannot afford to ignore these calls for change, which could eventually extend to the political realm. In fact, whether they listen depends on the demand for clothes made in Bangladesh being sustained. A well-intentioned but ultimately misguided boycott would work against this outcome.

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