Bangladesh Factory Collapse: 1000 Are Dead, But How Many Lives Has International Investment Saved?


Amidst the fire and rubble, Bangladesh faces international criticism for its recent garment industrial travesties. Critics of capitalism and globalization have banded together threatening Bangladesh's economy and demanding government reform. However tempting it may be to slander corporate greed and Western investment, we must recognize Bangladesh's enormous benefits through international trade and cooperation with Western retailers.  

Bangladesh stands as a textbook example of Henry Kissinger's "basket case." As one of the world's most populated countries, poverty and disease remains rampant. And yet, we can clearly follow Bangladesh's path along its development curve. 20 years ago, there were no brick buildings, or any major industries. There was no valuable livestock, nor modes of modern transportation. Running water was considered a luxury rather than a normal commodity.

And yet, over the course of 20 years Bangladesh has made some of the largest development gains in the world. Travel to Dhaka and you will see numerous factories, schools, and cars. Walk through the city, and many men will happily show you their family car, motorcycle, or home with bathroom and water.

As a developing nation, there is no hiding widespread poverty, corruption, and environmental waste. However, Bangladesh's role in the national market has brought commanding success. Between 2000 and 2010, the World Bank notes that real agricultural wages rose 59% compared with 42% for all sectors. Between 1990 and 2010, life expectancy rose by ten years from 59 to 69. Major gains have been recorded by lowering infant mortality rates and in primary education. Most importantly, employment opportunities are now available for women, which will give agency to their lives and add to the growth of the nation.

The recent November factory fire killing over 100 and the April building collapse killing over 1000 has enraged many labor advocates over safety standards. And rightly so; these horrific incidents have claimed more lives than major natural disasters. Enemies of market capitalism, however, have pressured the international community to wrongly invoke government action and revoke trading rights. The 27-nation European Union has even contemplated placing economic sanctions on Bangladesh's exports. In the upcoming month, the United States Trade Representative will make a decision as to the status of Bangladesh's favorable trade preference, a system which allows exports to pass duty-free.

We all desire the best living and workforce standards for our fellow man. But eliminating free trade or using a severely corrupt government system to mandate change would create dire consequences. The implications would not do justice for the innocent lives lost in the fire and building collapse. Instead, such a course of action would relapse all economic and social progress made by the country. Consider the tradeoff between raising millions out of poverty and closing trade with the people of Bangladesh. By relinquishing free trade status, Bangladesh is more likely to encounter human travesty as it strives to develop its industries.  In agreement, senior representative of the House Ways and Means committee Sander Levin (D-Mich.) states, "revoking General System of Preference status alone wouldn’t be the right policy because it doesn't apply to garment makers."

In reality, Western brands and retailers have raised the wages and improved the conditions of workers. By natural forces, Western corporations strive to promote better safety standards and conditions. These corporations (such as Walmart, JC Penny, and Sears) have an established brand that is at risk of being associated with workplace malpractice such as sweatshops, child labor, or reoccurring fatalities. As example, Walt Disney, the world's largest entertainment company, has recently decided to pull out its garment merchandise from Bangladesh.  

Rather than using federal law to prohibit trade, or require action by the Bangladesh government, corporations have actively taken the initiative to protect their image. Major Western corporations such as Walmart, and other supermarket retailers are taking the initial stages towards implementing overseas factory safety agreements. Such standards set forth by these trade agreements will greatly enhance the working conditions of Bangladesh. We should support these private sector initiatives, rather than the use of poverty-inducing federal sanctions.

Along the course of national development, Bangladesh will encounter industrial accidents. However, the nation will also experience rising standards of living, educational and infrastructure booms, and opportunities previously denied to the women of Bangladesh. Recognizing this tradeoff is key to the continued economic growth and the prevention of future travesty within Bangladesh.