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The Environmental and Human Health Effects of Outsourcing Garment Production to Bangladesh

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Why do capitalists move their operations?

They do so to maximize profit. But that term is an euphemism that obscures the decisions behind those choices. Profits are great, right! For decades, corporations have shifted operations around the globe, sometimes within the United States but usually between nations, in order to take advantage of lax labor and environmental regulations. We know about the apparel industry’s exploitation of Bangladeshi labor. But that’s not the only reason to choose Bangladesh. Here is another:

That water is indeed purple. The large building near the water: a school. This is near the site of the factory collapse in April that killed over 1100 workers. Here is the mayor of the town of Savar, where this picture was taken:

The inspections were part of a highly publicized antipollution enforcement campaign led by Munir Chowdhury, a senior official in the environment ministry. Mr. Chowdhury raided factories, often at night, finding that many were saving money by dumping waste without treating it. He imposed repeated fines until he was transferred this year to run the state dairy operation.

Mr. Kader, the acting mayor of Savar, said there was only so much a single official could do. “You should understand the reality in Bangladesh,” he said. “These people who are setting up industries and factories here are much more powerful than me. When a government minister calls me and tells me to give permission to someone to set up a factory in Savar, I can’t refuse.”

For global brands that buy clothing from Bangladeshi factories, pollution rarely gets the same attention as workplace conditions or fire safety. H &M has sponsored some environmental programs, but Bangladeshi environmentalists say global buyers have done far too little.

“The buyers totally understand the conditions of Bangladesh and they take advantage of it,” said Ms. Hasan, the environmental lawyer.

After the United States and western Europe passed meaningful environmental regulations, corporations moved to the developing world precisely to recreate a situation where they could dump chemicals and dyes into water, without regard for how it would affect local ecosystems or human health.

In other words, the textile industry still operates by the laws of 1835. And they intend to keep it that way through capital mobility.

This is why environmental and working-class issues are so intertwined in my mind. Bangladeshis need jobs. There’s no reason why the textile industry needs to dump its dyes into the rivers. But if the Bangladeshi people organize to create meaningful environmental legislation and begin coming after the polluters, they will just move to another country. This is why we need international labor and environmental laws. There are meaningful and enforced laws prohibiting the importation of goods to the United States that are made by prison labor or slave labor. There is no good reason why we can’t expand those laws to include nations that allow union organizers to be killed with impunity or products that are produced in an environmentally unsustainable manner. Whether in Bangladesh or the United States, Vietnam or Honduras, worker rights and environmental rights are human rights. The United States should crack down on its corporations whose factories violate basic conceptions of these rights or who subcontract work out to employers who do the same thing. Workers need to be able to bring suit in western courts against companies who pollute their water, give them industrial disease, or kill their husbands and daughters on the job.

This is how a worldwide industrial democracy must work. Without empowering workers to improve their lives and limiting corporate mobility to evade basic labor and environmental regulations, environmental problems and working-class life will not improve.

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  • evodevo

    I doubt if the corporate-whore Congresscritters in office now would even consider doing something like this. It should have been done as a condition for passing NAFTA and the China most-favored-nation status long ago, but I’m afraid that is a pipedream. Even now corporations STILL can’t get why the US consumer hasn’t recovered and gone on a buying spree. No jobs, no money, no consumption, stupid.

    • Of course they won’t consider it. That’s why we need to make an international movement out of these things, getting both labor and environmental organizations to make a priority out of such things. This is what we have to work for, even if it is 30 years down the road when it becomes possible.

      • dollared

        Yes. This is a potential use for standards bodies. Establish clean production, carbon measurement and fair labor standards, and then get them adopted as “good ideas” by relevant standards bodies. Then go to places like the Nordics and Canada and get them adopted as import standards, with a tariff on violators reflecting the evaded costs of compliance. Then, and only then, do you bring pressure on WTO, UN, and other OECD countries to adopt the framework.

  • The golden days…

    The textile companies (including shoemakers) used to dump their dyes in the Merrimack River in Manchester, NH. French Canadians relatives were witnesses to it. It was a big event to see a major river turned into a giant mess. I bet those dyes back then though were less harmful than the dyes being dumped in Bangladesh.

    Anyone know if Bangladesh has its own version of the EPA? Can an entire country be declared a superfund site?

    • md rackham

      There used to be so much sulfur in the Merrimack from the paper mills that white houses within a mile of the river used to turn dark yellow from the fumes. Never mind the smell.

      Fond childhood memories from the 1960s.

      And the Republicans appear to be planning a push to defund the Clean Water Act as part of the upcoming debt limit fight.

    • DrDick

      You do not want to know what the mining companies did to those “pure Rocky Mountain streams.” We are still cleaning up the mess and there a number of rivers, especially in Idaho, where you really do not want to drink the water.

    • Fester Bestertester

      When my father was a kid (1930’s, Amsterdam, NY), he could tell what color carpet the mills were making by the color of the Chuctanunda creek.

  • anthrofred

    While I don’t have experience in Bangladesh, my experience elsewhere in South Asia has led me to be extremely skeptical when it comes to the drafting and enforcement of environmental legislation as it intersects with the interests of the urban poor. In cities like Delhi, groups have used environmentalist rhetoric to advance middle and upper class interests and to clear space for development that will have absolutely no benefit to the original (often illegal) residents. It has often been small industrial developments that have been targeted and used as a pretext for massive eviction drives rather than larger firms.

    The original post ends thoughtfully. I’ve argued in the past that there needs to be increased scrutiny of governments ensuring that environmental laws aren’t used to advance the interests of the powerful to the detriment of the marginalized. Bundling environmental laws with robust labor laws and a renewed emphasis on workers’ rights as suggested is an excellent way forward here.

  • Bill Murray

    Why do capitalists move their operations?

    Moving has a positive net present value, so they have to

    • DocAmazing

      To get to the other side?

  • JustRuss

    I’ve always thought it would be easier to impose tariffs on goods from countries that don’t meet our environmental and labor standards than trying to negotiate and enforce international laws. Sadly, I don’t think either approach has much of a shot these days. Thanks WTO and corporate persons.

    • dollared

      This is the correct, and simplest approach. Bundle up labor and environmental law with a carbon tax on imports. Products that are cleanly produced in a fair labor environment have only a carbon tax, all others have higher taxes based on which international standards they violate.

  • shah8

    When you think of the possibility that the US would do something like what Loomis asks for…

    I read this this morning…

    http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/07/18/cashing_in_after_the_coup#.Uekw-b_XYJs.twitter

  • burnspbesq

    Upgrading labor and environmental laws, and the enforcement of such laws, in the manufacturing countries costs money. There is no fairy that can wave a wand and make those costs disappear. Someone is going to bear them.

    Even if you believe (and there is evidence to suggest) that the demand for apparel is relatively price-elastic, so long as that demand is not infinitely price-elastic some portion of that cost increase ends up baked into the price of the goods at your local Walmart. So your poor and working class American consumer is asked to take a hit to his/her standard of living in order to improve the standard of living of workers in the manufacturing countries.

    How do you plan to sell that idea?

    • dollared

      You are just a bundle of right wing tropes. We are talking about less a dollar of unit costs. So yes, a $10 tax on all Americans. Which, of course, would result in either offsetting tariff revenue or more jobs in the US due to the reduction in manufacturing cost differential.

      • Also, higher tax rates on corporate profits that go to mitigating any effects any of this would have on working-class Americans that people who make arguments like burnspbesq only care about when they can be used as a cudgel against improving the lives of other working-class people.

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  • Book

    In colonial Bangladesh, purple rain is not a Prince album.

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