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Bangladeshi Trade Privileges Suspended

[ 16 ] June 29, 2013 |

In a move pleasing to the AFL-CIO, the Obama Administration has taken what I think is an unprecedented step in suspending trade privileges for Bangladesh after the building collapse that killed 1100 garment workers this spring. The labor federation had pushed for such an action all the way since 2007 because of that nation’s consistent disregard for worker safety.

Honestly, this is not that important of a move. Bangladesh is pretty mad about it, but it’s more that they lost face than real economic burden. For one, the garment industry is not covered by these privileges and that’s about 95% of Bangladeshi imports to the U.S. More likely is that the U.S. is hoping European nations do the same, which would put slightly more pressure on Bangladesh since they have more non-garment trade in the country.

The Generalized System of Preferences, which is designed to boost the economies of developing nations, covers less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s nearly $5 billion in exports to the U.S., its largest market. The benefits don’t cover the lucrative garment sector but Bangladesh’s government was anxious to keep them.

The action may not exact a major and immediate economic toll, but it carries a reputational cost and might deter American companies from investing in the country, one of the world’s poorest.

This is all fine and good. The Bangladeshi government does suck on these issues, what with its murdering union organizers and such. Putting pressure on it is a positive. But the real power behind improving working conditions is the apparel companies. The government needs to pressure the companies to improve conditions. Once again, the only real way to protect workers is to have international safety and health standards that are both legally enforceable in the country of origin and that contractors are still liable for if their subcontractors violate them. One could create these standards with various levels of stringency, but at the minimum, basic workplace safety, exposure, and pollution laws should not only be applicable, but workers around the world should be able to sue the companies in the corporate country of origin.

I know we are nowhere near this happening. But the textile industry has exploited workers for over a century in the worst way. Why things never really improve in that industry is capital mobility while laws and regulations remain tied to place. It is time to make law as mobile as capital.

As it is, the concern is that U.S. companies will invest in Vietnam or Indonesia or Cambodia, taking jobs away from Bangladeshi workers who need them and who are losing them simply because a couple of particularly horrific accidents took place in their country. Those workers want reforms, not to lose their jobs. We need to craft responses that encourage workplace safety, worker empowerment to improve their own lives, and continues to have people work and earn money for their families.

Comments (16)

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  1. Ronan says:

    I wonder if there’s any way of supporting union organisation globally in the same manner that human rights* are, although I know that comes with a whole lot of baggage (not as effective as might be imagined, paternalistic, used to further the geopolitical goals of Northern countries and so on)

    * I guess a number of Human rights organisations do include it in their policy platforms and I’d imagine, though don’t know the specifics, that there are Union led global solidarity movements, but it seems that pushing for the space for the governments to allow people organise would be the ideal long term solution

  2. Why can’t the apparel companies have their goods made in the Marianas Islands, so they can get the “Made in the USA” label stitched on?

    Did I miss where our country stopped the child and virtual-slave labor practices supported by Jack Abramoff and his pals, and made reality by Tom Delay and a Republican Congress?

    Well, did we?
    Maybe I missed it.
    Tell me we did.
    I don’t think I’ll ever get over that bad taste in my mouth, left by the SC’s VRA decision.
    I’d like to hear some more good news, besides the repeal of DOMA, and Ms. Davis’s filibuster.

    So give me some good news!
    Please?

  3. Dana Houle says:

    This may be as much a signal to other countries, with whom we have more non-textile trade, as it is to Bangladesh.

    • Anonymous says:

      And the signal would be ‘we will make purely symbolic gestures that have no actual effect upon your horrific labour practices, either’.

  4. dp says:

    Per this and the coal post below, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the industries that started the industrial revolution have the worst attitudes toward workers. They considered them expendable in the nineteenth century, and the culture of the industries maintained that attitude.

    • Dana Houle says:

      But in terms of textiles, it’s still one that needs cheap, unskilled labor to do stuff not much more challenging that what textile workers had to do a hundred or two hundred years ago. It’s not just the “culture of the industries,” it’s the economics of it, especially with relatively cheap international shipping, containers, computerized inventory management, etc.

      It’s different with coal, in that so much of it in North America is now being dug out from the surface and doesn’t require men to go in to the ground. I don’t know the industry well, but it seems like the transition from men using their muscle to men using heavy equipment is in coal at a point similar to what port work was maybe 40-50 years ago, when it shifted from needing dozens or scores of stevedores to unload a cargo to needing only a couple guys, one operating a humongous crane, to unload a massive ocean-going freighter. If so, and if it requires a fairly high level of technique, it’s possible the coal extraction, as it’s being done in Wyoming or through mountaintop removal, will require far fewer but possibly higher paid workers.

      Other than athletes and maybe some highly credentialed public employees (like scientists or attorneys in expensive metro areas like DC and NYC who are represented by federal employee unions), probably the highest paid union members in the US are longshoreman.

  5. [...] US suspends Bangladesh’s trade privileges. [...]

  6. The value of the gesture to Bangladeshi workers may be negligible, but for Americans whenever our government takes a truly pro-labor position it seems like a miracle of Hope and Change, at least change in the discourse. If we say something nice about it, maybe they’ll try it again.

  7. DocAmazing says:

    I guess we’re not going to get a George Harrison concert out of this…

  8. Shakezula says:

    Oooh! Does this mean MattY will soon inform us that this is bad for Bangladeshis? Those still living at any rate.

    I can’t hardly wait!

    • DrS says:

      That reminds me, haven’t seen our dear little libertarian friend DMN around here recently.

      Surely he’d have something to say.

      This troublesome meddling in the free market and all.

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