Deep cracks visible in the walls of a Bangladesh garment building had compelled police to order it evacuated a day before it collapsed, officials said Thursday, but factories based there ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working.
Wednesday's disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar is the worst ever for Bangladesh's booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire less than five months earlier that killed 112 people. Workers at both sites made clothes for major brands around the world; some of the companies in the building that fell say their customers include retail giants such as Wal-Mart.
Joe Fresh, a Canadian company owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd., issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon confirming that "a small number" of Joe Fresh-branded products were manufactured at the complex.
It's very plausible that one reason American workplaces have gotten safer over the decades is that we now tend to outsource a lot of factory-explosion-risk to places like Bangladesh where 87 people just died in a building collapse.* This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States.
I think that's wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it's entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that's primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it's good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.
A fairly open-and-shut case of criminal negligence, inflicted on a horrifying scale against hundreds of the most vulnerable people on Earth—all of them impoverished, half of them women, and at least some of them children, crushed in day-care centers on the building's ground floor. The crooked owner, Sohel, had flouted the law over the past five years by illegally adding three stories on top of the building, likely causing the cracks. In contravention of the law, the sweatshop foremen coerced hundreds of people fearful of losing their jobs into dying instead.
I would call that murder. Matt Yglesias calls it "entirely appropriate."
In classic "Slate contrarian" form, Yglesias is committed, in his bland way, to discern a moral from this exploitation. Matt doesn't see the need for a global standard of workplace safety. Pish-posh! He sets the fools straight: in America, dangerous jobs, like "fishing, logging, and trucking... pay a premium over other working-class occupations." That's why Americans commonly say phrases like, "I'm as rich as a fisherman!" or, when you see a man in a suit flash a wad of cash, say, "Hey, Mr. Rockefeller, what are you, some kinda long-haul trucker?"
The suggestion of structural economic inequality and exploitation in America is settled. In Bangladesh, it is very different. Why? No one is quite sure. Yglesias obviously feels no need to cite any information about Bangladesh; George Harrison did a nice concert for them once, and I think it was in one of the Roger Moore "Bond" movies. In Bangladesh, a country of non-English speaking chattel, "There are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans." Whereas the American truck driver's choice is usually between red or white wine with foie gras, Bangladeshis must choose between being fired from their $38 per month jobs, or entering a building that will collapse and kill them. There are very good reasons to make these choices, as Yglesias points out.
Imposing American rules like, "Pajamas cannot be made inside collapsing buildings," might be "unnecessarily immiserating." Apparently being forced to die stitching Matt's "Punisher" tees for pennies a day isn't immiserating in the slightest. Matt knows on which side his bread is buttered. Bangladeshi standards "would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States." Since rich people are our precious resources, we would not want any buildings falling on them. That shit eventuates elsewhere.
I don’t see who’s making the “choice” to ignore the basic safety of workers except for the rapacious employer and, by extension, the companies using his exploitative services while looking the other way. This certainly wasn’t the choice of the Bangladeshi state, since the practices of the factory that lead to the deadly collapse were illegal. The workers made a “choice” put their lives at risk in conditions that were known to be appallingly unsafe only according to the kind of logic that led hack Gilded Age jurists to conclude that minimum wage and maximum hours violated the due process rights of not only employers but of workers. The argument for greater intervention on the part of richer liberal democracies to enforce tougher labor standards is not an argument that we should be imposing “our” values on Bangladeshi citizens who don’t value worker safety the way we do. It’s argument that we should be using the greater enforcement capacity and leverage of richer liberal democratic states to enforce values that all evidence suggests are shared between richer and poorer nations. (Hobbes didn’t have an explicit section in Leviathan that we have a universal shared interest in not being crushed by collapsing building so that a well-connected scumbag could employ more people in his sweatshop and American retailers could save a few pennies a unit, but I think his general logic applies here.)
Peace and courage to the workers and their families.