Here’s How to Improve Factory Safety in Bangladesh

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome David Atkins to UN Dispatch. David lives in California where he is president of the research consulting firm The Pollux Group. He is a contributor to the popular blog Digby’s Hullabaloo. 

Bangladesh has come under fire in recent days due to a new Human Rights Watch report criticizing the nation for failures in establishing labor rights and protections that helped spawn anti-government protests, as well as human rights violations for government crackdowns on protesters. The trouble is just the latest in a year of bad news in the Southeast Asian nation, but it has also brought to the forefront the need for stronger international action to protect the rights of workers in developing nations.

In the wake of last year’s horrific factory collapse that killed 1,129 workers and injured over 2,500 due to shoddy construction and safety practices, two separate models of dealing with the problem began to take root.

In the Eurozone where international regulatory protocols are more widely accepted, two global labor organizations, UNI Global and IndustriALL Global Union, brokered a legally binding deal signed by an array of international firms to help underwrite worker safety improvements, including independent inspections of factories. Only one American company, PVH, signed on to this approach.

The second model was more in keeping with the American ethic of “self-regulation:” a number of corporations made voluntary commitments negotiated by the Bipartisan Policy Center to fund improvements to worker safety and infrastructure, but without independent verification of safety improvements. Unsurprisingly, most experts took a dim view of the latter approach, since there would be no way to independently verify that companies were keeping their commitments to protecting workers, nor would failure to abide by the promises be legally actionable.

However, it’s clear that even the more labor-friendly response has serious problems. First, it only applies to Bangladesh, even though many other developing countries where multinational corporations have factories have frightening labor and safety conditions as well. Second, it’s essentially reactive: the commitments were only made after the deaths of over a thousand people had shocked the conscience of the world, potentially causing PR headaches for the manufacturers in question. Third, it puts Bangladesh itself in a precarious position: the country must walk the line between delivering too little in the way of protections and wages for its workers, and delivering enough that production costs lead manufacturers to look elsewhere for expendable labor—including in nations whose conditions may or may not be worse than those in Bangladesh.

The lesson should be obvious: the more international and legally binding the agreement, the more helpful it will be to workers in developing nations. The more expansive and multi-party the treaties are, the less competitive labor arbitrage risk will entail for any nation that improves factory conditions. Voluntary commitments from multinational corporations will do little to prevent the next tragedy.

Labor and worker protection agreements are in their infancy at the highest international levels. But with multinational corporations increasingly able to use labor arbitrage to manufacture products in nations with the weakest worker protections, the international community must take a stand in creating legally binding, global treaties that are proactive in nature, and carry negative trade consequences for those nations that choose to flout or ignore them.