Stitching in safety

As Bangladesh moves to clean up its garment industry, it deserves the support of outsourcers

In London, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni has urged global garment brands not to quit her country after the building collapse in Savar. Her candid plea compels consideration. Companies that withdraw, citing moral concerns over work conditions, harm the prospects of millions of workers, for whom such employment is a great equaliser. Work conditions in the industry, a pioneer in outsourcing before there was even a name for the phenomenon, are not solely the concern of the host government. All the stakeholders have an interest in the matter local and national governments in the host country, global brands that outsource their fabrication, contractors who take work from them and their labour force.

After the Savar collapse that killed at least 353 people, the government of Sheikh Hasina is showing the resolve to improve regulation and enforcement. Action has been initiated against factory owners and local bodies who appear to have colluded to dilute building standards. Labour has turned restive and may no longer tolerate practices that endanger lives and livelihoods. Now, the response of the stakeholders overseas will help to determine whether Bangladesh emerges stronger from the disaster or is forced into a political crisis by unemployment. Overseas, attitudes to outsourced manufacturing swing between extremes. There is an insatiable hunger for cheap goods and deals too good to be true which they are, since they are often made possible by illegal and inhumane practices. And then a sweatshop scandal breaks out, consumers stop buying in a wave of moralistic moderation, manufacturers discard tainted contractors and move their interests elsewhere.

There are reasonable price points between the extremes of cut-rate production and fair trade. If outsourcers don't pinch their contractors' margins too hard, they could have the authority to make occupational safety and health moral issues, not mere contractual conditionalities. By shaving a bit off their margins, they would be investing in long-term facilities that would earn them the loyalty of ethical consumers. Bangladesh, an early mover in garment fabrication, now deserves the support of outsourcers as it cleans up the industry.

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