As early news of the Bangladesh factory collapse spread last week, a conversation was overheard in corporate offices whose names read like the label emblazoning the butt of your jeans:
“Crap. Are they going to find any of our labels in that wreckage? Damn, better get out ahead of this story. Get the word out that we feel betrayed by our subcontractor; we are going to demand more from now on.”Disney says they are out. That they were in the position to have to exit unceremoniously speaks volumes.
I am assured by the New York Times this morning (Worker Safety in Bangladesh and Beyond) that the prevailing meager minimum wage in Bangladesh of $37 per month (assuming a 40 hour work week–and I would assume nothing here–that works out to 21 cents per hour), is still “far higher than the wages of farmers and maids.”
The studied indifference embedded in that analysis is breathtaking. When you try to account for the stunning disparity between $37 per month and the $1200 or so a minimum wage worker can earn in a month here (not a sum to be proud of, either), you cannot miss the wholesale devaluation of humanity that is at work. This isn’t some commercial venture gone bad: this is the intentional looting of human stock, exploiting their needs and misery to induce behaviors for economic gain. It is no different than exploiting the needs and behaviors of cattle to induce them to walk down the kill line.
Everyone involved in this kind of third world supply chain are traffickers in misery goods. Until they are punished in the only way they understand–financially–the traffickers will flit from country to country, exploiting misery to extract value from local populations. Local strong men and weak elected governments will turn a blind eye to the abusive conditions of employment. The endless sea of advertising in which we are immersed will continuously assure us that we deserve more things at low prices. Follow me below the fold to talk about what this means.
Walmart’s success and the triumph of bargain shopping in America are emblematic of headwinds we face trying to address the reality of third-world manufacturing. These “low prices” come with costs we shuffle off on others, like disposal of waste electronics (Where Do Old Cellphones Go to Die?) or the collapse of a fairly typical Bangladesh garment factory.
One line of thinking asserts that the declining fortunes of American workers is at least ameliorated by the availability of cheap goods from foreign sweatshops. That argument should embarrass the utterer because it endorses the abuse of one population for the benefit of another abused population. Neither side of the equation wins in what amounts to a codependent, deflationary spiral.
Every analysis of this problem seems to accept without question the notion that the cost savings achieved by trafficking in misery goods are both significant and justifiable, and that they affect retail price significantly. Just to peer a little more closely at that assertion, let's posit two workers, one paid $37 per month and the other paid $1200 per month, who both produce 1200 shirts over 170 or so working hours that month (standard US 40 hour week). As to the low cost worker, the labor cost per manufactured unit relative to the price it will sell at is nil. The more expensive worker has cost you $1 per manufactured unit. Clearly, that cost difference is not of itself significant to the ultimate retail buyer if just passed through. Heck, add another buck to keep profit margins intact when your labor costs are higher.
But the elephant in the room is all the other costs of manufacturing in the first world; all the environmental, construction, worker safety and public responsibility regulations that make us “first world” in the first place. All the things that guarantee the worker gets to go home at night, alive. The decision to traffic in misery goods involves discounting all the quantifiable business benefits of the first world environment, like great infrastructure, stable government and physical proximity to end markets. It’s not a free ride either because low labor costs are offset by higher transportation costs and risks (containers fall off ships regularly; plus the hidden carbon cost of burned fossil fuels for long distance transport). At best, the traffickers manage to socialize some of their expenses, burdening third-world countries with the cost of their inability to regulate, while privatizing incremental additional profits for the benefit of the very few. My assumption is that the real profit is in the variety of tax dodges that enable global corporations to effectively avoid serious taxation as they move operations around the world.
They claim it’s all for us. Are these low cost goods for our benefit as consumers? Only in the exploitive sense.
I see no path to change without first changing the mindset and behavior of first world consumers. The baby boomer generation and its progeny cling to a sense of entitlement to have any “thing” they want; preferably at “bargain” prices so we can have as many things as we desire. We fall into line behind corporate marketing departments, believing that a brand makes a thing more desirable and therefore worth more; heightening our palpable pleasure at grabbing the goods at 50% off the unreasonable original price. Masturbation without the mess, talk about a brilliant strategy for training consumers to spend their money.
I have met the enemy and it is me.
I am beginning to try to come to terms with this in my own habits. I already favor products from the fair trade movement; it ain’t perfect but it’s someplace to start when I can’t find something sourced in the US. Admittedly, it is not always easy to know where something comes from; and even harder to find an acceptable substitute for trafficked product. So I avoid all the “low price” big box stores (most of them are seriously deficient in their local labor practices, more than enough reason to decline to patronize them as it is) who are most closely tied to problematic supply chains. In apparel, I try to favor things produced in the Americas or in mid-tier Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand or the Philippines. Of course those countries have lost manufacturing to Bangladesh and elsewhere. I am not a fan of Chinese goods for all the moral and ethical reasons you can articulate. When I have a choice, which sadly is not all the time. South Korea produces stuff that competes well in our markets, no abuse required.
I encourage others to give this some real thought. But first, we have to change the discourse. I chose the words “traffickers in misery goods” carefully. People who trade in things immoral, unethical or illegal are called “traffickers.” We do this to avoid dignifying their activities with the normative labels of capitalist trade. The pejorative term applies to supply chain abusers in spades. I call them “misery goods,” because even allowing for local and cultural distinctiveness, those who labor for us do so under miserable and inhumane conditions, still not bringing home anything we would recognize as a living. Then the damn factory collapses.
Anyone who participates in these third-world supply chains should be pasted with the label, traffickers in misery goods, and their products shunned like disease. We reward them every time we buy. Its hard, but we have to stop. Extend this perspective to the plight of the American worker, and we might just turn some fundamental problems around.
The message around us in many domains is that we have to pay attention to the real costs of the way we live or the consequences may be fatal to human evolution. Its time to acknowledge that our choices matter in all things.