By Paolo von Schirach
December 11, 2012
WASHINGTON – The horrible fire and consequent high death toll at a garment factory in Bangladesh, accompanies by similar deadly accidents in Pakistan have caused strong reactions in Western media, in large part because these modern sweat shops are the main suppliers of the large European and American brands (Benetton, The Gap, and so on) and of the largest retail chains like Walmart.
Horrible work place conditions
It now emerges that the high death toll in these fires was caused by totally inadequate construction. The buildings housing the facilities lack modern fire controls systems, including escape routes. On top of that, it is clear that work place conditions, including proper ventilation, toilets and what not are primitive.
And so now Western media have “discovered” the ugly truth about the global supplies chains that keep the garment sector moving. Yes, the supply chains are built on the simple concept that the Western brands/major retailers will source their items in the countries (like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India or Cambodia) were labor is cheap and plentiful. And they will do this because all their competitors are doing it. Major retail is an incredibly competitive business with very low margins. For Walmart and the others the ideal match is a reliable and extremely low cost supplier. This is why the go to Bangladesh or China.
Standards created and circumvented
Sure enough, because of campaigns waged by NGOS and by some media in the last few years, the brands were forced to create labor and work place standards that supposedly their authorized suppliers have to observe. No doubt this is progress.
However, as the investigation into the Bangladesh factory fire has revealed, the rules and the mandates have been circumvented. Authorized suppliers routinely outsource production to off the list manufacturers. And so Walmart garments end up being made in facilities owned and operated by the bad guys.
That said, the “Oh My!” outcries following gruesome accounts of work place conditions look more than just a little suspect. They are downright disingenuous, given the countries we are dealing with. No, ladies and gentlemen, Bangladesh is not Switzerland. It is a poor, backward country with the dubious honor of fighting for top position among the most corrupt nations on earth. The notion that any agreement regarding work place conditions will actually be enforced in good faith is ludicrous, even with spot inspections and what not.
Supply chains originating in low cost countries
The ugly truth is this. Globalization is, among other good things, a race to the bottom. All Western labor intensive industries migrated to low labor cost countries. And these countries tend to be among the least civilized when it comes to workers rights and work place standards.
The next time you go to a Walmart store and happily snatch $ 4 T shirts remember that this ridiculously low retail price originates in a shoddy factory in China or Bangladesh in which (mostly illiterate) women workers toiling in appalling conditions are paid almost nothing. This is the apparel industry supply chain; and this is made possible by globalization.