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


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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