Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Neoliberal Capitalism in Bangladesh: The Violence of Free Markets in the Real World

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—At least 3,000 people are believed to have been in the building on Rana Plaza at the time the building collapsed. More than 380 bodies had been recovered by Monday morning. Hundreds are still missing. And with every day that passes, the chances of finding survivors grows dimmer.

The deadly incident in Savar has already been called the worst industrial accident in the country’s history. It serves as a reminder that nothing has changed when it comes to the inhumane conditions under which clothes are made in Bangladesh for European and American textile companies and clothing chains. And the same can be said about the culture of corruption that is rampant in Bangladesh, the abundance of illegally procured construction permits and the lax attitude factory owners take toward safety standards. —Hasnain Kazim, Nils Klawitter and Wieland Wagner, from their piece for Der Spiegel (April 29, 2013), available here.

—The disaster refocused attention on the dangers facing workers in the booming Bangladeshi garment industry, ramping up calls for stricter regulation. Western brands whose labels were found in the wreckage faced new pressure to sign on to a safety agreement.

“Brands can no longer justify any further delay.... The lack of action demonstrated by brands amounts to criminal negligence,” Ineke Zeldenrust of the Clean Clothes Campaign said in a statement Monday.—From the Los Angeles Times (April 30, 2013)

—These tragedies could not have come at a worse time for major retailers that purchase garments from these factories. For months the International Labor Rights Forum and other labor rights groups have encouraged garment retailers to sign a binding agreement that would create a system of rigorous inspections, transparency and oversight. Thus far, they have had limited success, with only the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands and one German retailer signing on. The agreement, the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, would establish a nine member Oversight Committee, with four members appointed by Bangladesh and international labor groups, four members appointed by business representatives chosen by companies sourcing from Bangladesh, and one member mutually chosen by the other eight. Corporations that sign on to the MOU would help fund the costs of improving fire and safety standards in the factories where they source their supplies. [….]

A key provision in the Agreement is binding arbitration. Specifically, the Agreement requires the Oversight Committee to develop a plan for the implementation and administration of the Bangladesh fire and safety program that includes “[a] process for binding and legally enforceable arbitration of disputes between parties to this MOU with respect to this MOU and the program….”

In other words, labor unions and participating corporations would sign a binding agreement to improve the working conditions of Bangladeshi garment workers, and any corporation that failed to comply with its funding or other obligations under the MOU could be the subject to international arbitration enforceable under the New York Convention in that corporation’s home country. [….]Roger Alford at Opinio Juris (April 26, 2013)

“The Terror of Capitalism,” by Vijay Prashad, CounterPunch (April 26-28, 2013):

“On Wednesday, April 24, a day after Bangladeshi authorities asked the owners to evacuate their garment factory that employed almost three thousand workers, the building collapsed. The building, Rana Plaza, located in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, produced garments for the commodity chain that stretches from the cotton fields of South Asia through Bangladesh’s machines and workers to the retail houses in the Atlantic world. Famous name brands were stitched here, as are clothes that hang on the satanic shelves of Wal-Mart. Rescue workers were able to save two thousand people as of this writing, with confirmation that over three hundred are dead. The numbers for the latter are fated to rise. It is well worth mentioning that the death toll in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City of 1911 was one hundred and forty six. The death toll here is already twice that. This ‘accident’ comes five months (November 24, 2012) after the Tazreen garment factory fire that killed at least one hundred and twelve workers.

The list of ‘accidents’ is long and painful. In April 2005, a garment factory in Savar collapsed, killing seventy-five workers. In February 2006, another factory collapsed in Dhaka, killing eighteen. In June 2010, a building collapsed in Dhaka, killing twenty-five. These are the ‘factories’ of twenty-first century globalization – poorly built shelters for a production process geared toward long working days, third rate machines, and workers whose own lives are submitted to the imperatives of just-in-time production. Writing about the factory regime in England during the nineteenth century, Karl Marx noted, ‘But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its wear-wolf hunger for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight…. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by reducing it of its fertility’ (Capital, Chapter 10).

These Bangladesh factories are a part of the landscape of globalization that is mimicked in the factories along the US-Mexico border, in Haiti, in Sri Lanka, and in other places that opened their doors to the garment industry’s savvy use of the new manufacturing and trade order of the 1990s. Subdued countries that had neither the patriotic will to fight for their citizens nor any concern for the long-term debilitation of their social order rushed to welcome garment production. The big garment producers no longer wanted to invest in factories – they turned to sub-contractors, offering them very narrow margins for profit and thereby forcing them to run their factories like prison-houses of labour. The sub-contracting regime allowed these firms to deny any culpability for what was done by the actual owners of these small factories, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of the cheap products without having their consciences stained with the sweat and blood of the workers. It also allowed the consumers in the Atlantic world to buy vast amount of commodities, often with debt-financed consumption, without concern for the methods of production. An occasionally outburst of liberal sentiment turned against this or that company, but there was no overall appreciation of the way the Wal-Mart type of commodity chain made normal the sorts of business practices that occasioned this or that campaign. [….]

In the Atlantic world, meanwhile, self-absorption over the wars on terror and on the downturn in the economy prevent any genuine introspection over the mode of life that relies upon debt-fueled consumerism at the expense of workers in Dhaka. Those who died in the Rana building are victims not only of the malfeasance of the sub-contractors, but also of twenty-first century globalisation.

Vijay Prashad’s latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (London: Verso, 2012).

Addendum: See too this timely Forum discussion at Boston Review: Can Global Brands Create Just Supply Chains? The lead article addressing corporate responsibility with regard to industrial workers involved in the geography of global manufacturing is by Richard M. Locke.

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