U.S. Policies Allow Sweatshop Fires

The latest sweatshop disaster in Bangladesh, which claimed the lives of over 200 young women, calls into question the foundations of US globalization policies since the Clinton era. It is not enough to blame the corruption of Bangladesh factory owners, nor sufficient to suggest better training and factory codes from Walmart or the Gap. It is time to ban the US sale of garments made in Bangladesh until enforceable labor codes are imposed on that country.

But US policy, since the 1990s globalization era began, has been a march away from labor protections and the adoption of so-called “free market” models. Since the Clinton era a whole new generation of liberal free-marketers has dominated the blogosphere, think tanks, and the staffs of Congress. As one example, take Matthew Iglesias who writes for Salon and the Center for American Progress:

San Francisco cut key provisions out of deference to companies like the Gap.

In 2009, along with the City Project’s Robert Garcia, I met also with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to propose a federal grants program to cities adopting enforceable sweatfree ordinances. Solis’ top policy staffer expressed great interest in the idea – “you’ve made the cut” of new ideas, she said – but the proposal quickly perished from institutional indifference.

Global agencies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) insist on enforceable, not voluntary, protections for private corporate investment but long-standing institutions like the International Labor Organization (ILO) are limited to education about their minimal labor standards.

Even communist states like China accept the notion that cheap labor brings a “competitive advantage” in the world economy. When their workers rise up for livable wages, American and European multi-national corporations pull out and relocate in Vientam, Cambodia, or Bangladesh where conditions are even worse. Huge sums are at stake. Bangladesh alone makes $18 billion annually from its clothing exports.

“History shows that unions can make a big difference in improving working conditions,” the New York Times editorial on Bangladesh notes. Well said, but the Times has long been a leader in promoting corporate globalization. It is past time for the Times to advocate meaningful labor standards in any procurement or tax-incentive policies receiving American taxpayer support. Otherwise the infamous “race to the bottom” will continue, and the bottom means fiery hell for young women. 

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