In Praise of Sweatshops

26 April 2013

In today’s Telegraph David Blair has a strong and angry piece arguing that we – that is, western consumers – are complicit in or partially responsible for the deaths of nearly 300 Bangladeshis killed when the building in which they worked collapsed. Many will agree with him. This, they will say, is the true price of our addiction to (or, rather, preference for) cheap clothes manufactured in often appalling conditions. If you shop at Primark today you have blood on your hands.

In the aftermath of an appalling accident such as this it is no surprise that people are calling for more to be done. Some even suggest that factories in Bangladesh and other developing countries be held to the same standards that apply to factories and working conditions in countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom. Intuitively, this seems an appealing argument. But it is, nevertheless, an inadequate one.

As Matt Yglesias says there are very good reasons why Bangladeshi health and safety standards are lower than those pertaining in richer countries. We may deplore third-world sweatshops but doing so is, in the end, a way of propping up our own self-esteem rather more than it is any useful concern for the lives of the men and, chiefly, women working in these factories.

It would be better if more buildings in Bangladesh met existing, local, safety regulations. It may well be that western companies could and should do more to monitor the conditions in which their contractors work. Be that as it may, sweatshops in the developing world have, on balance, been a good thing. And it is not even close.

For most of human history most life has been brutal, nasty and short. This is not something to celebrate but nor can it be avoided. Working conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories may often remain pretty dreadful. But they are better than life toiling in the fields. Some 45% of Bangladeshis work in agriculture, many of them still, alas, on terms little better than subsistence farming. By contrast, working in a clothing factory is, relatively speaking, an attractive option.

Some three million people in Bangladesh work in that country’s textiles and clothing industry. Many of them are women, empowered as never before in the country’s history. We might deplore the conditions in which they are compelled to work but that should not blind us to the fact that, like it or not, these are still preferable to the alternatives realistically available to them.

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The Bangladeshi economy has been growing at approximately 6% a year recently. The minimum wage paid to garment workers may still seem appallingly low by our standards but in 2010 it was still nearly double what it was in 2006. Life in Bangladesh is getting better.

We look at the teeming cities of the developing world and the millions still living in slum conditions and see dreadful stories of human degradation and failure. There is, for sure, something to this. But it is not the entire story. We too rarely pause to contemplate the alternatives. And those alternatives are often even worse. As Harvard’s Ed Glaeser put it in his terrific book The Triumph of the City:

The extreme-poverty rate in Lagos, when corrected for higher prices in the city, is less than half the extreme-poverty rate in rural Nigeria. About three-quarters of Lagos residents have access to safe drinking water, a figure that is horribly low but that is far higher than anyplace else in Nigeria, where the norm is less than 30 percent. Kolkata is also considered a place of great deprivation but the poverty rate in that city is 11 percent while the poverty rate in West Bengal is 24 percent. In recent years, more than 10 percent of West Bengal’s residents have faced food shortages; the comparable figure for urban residents is less than 1 percent.

Life, however nasty, in these cities is preferable to the miseries of rural poverty. Similarly, life working in what we deem a sweatshop is, for millions, preferable to the alternatives available to them. Making it significantly more difficult – and more expensive – to hire Bangladeshi workers is likely to actually impoverish Bangladesh.

Globalisation has been an extraordinary success. Millions, perhaps even billions, of people are better off as a result. Like any Great Improvement it has been an uneven process and never a cost-free endeavour either. Nevertheless, the sweatshops well-intentioned westerners deplore have played a large part in this process. In the context of Bangladesh or Pakistan the workers in these factories are the lucky ones.

You need not rely on my word for this. Here’s Paul Krugman:

[W]herever the new export industries have grown, there has been measurable improvement in the lives of ordinary people. Partly this is because a growing industry must offer a somewhat higher wage than workers could get elsewhere in order to get them to move. More importantly, however, the growth of manufacturing–and of the penumbra of other jobs that the new export sector creates–has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.

[…] These improvements have not taken place because well-meaning people in the West have done anything to help–foreign aid, never large, has lately shrunk to virtually nothing. Nor is it the result of the benign policies of national governments, which are as callous and corrupt as ever. It is the indirect and unintended result of the actions of soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs, whose only concern was to take advantage of the profit opportunities offered by cheap labor. It is not an edifying spectacle; but no matter how base the motives of those involved, the result has been to move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful but nonetheless significantly better.

As he says, it is not an especially edifying spectacle. But it is better than what was there before. Is it callous to think that industrial accidents – even tragedies – are, to put it in unfortunate terms, a price worth paying for this improvement? Perhaps it is. Capitalism can be a brutal mistress. But, viewed as dispassionately as possible, it is a price the Bangladeshis themselves are prepared to pay.

And, as Krugman suggests, increased competition and higher wages actually helps to drive standards up, not down. Could things be better still? Of course they could. But they could be and until very recently were very much worse too. As Krugman, again, wrote:

The advantages of established First World industries are still formidable. The only reason developing countries have been able to compete with those industries is their ability to offer employers cheap labor. Deny them that ability, and you might well deny them the prospect of continuing industrial growth, even reverse the growth that has been achieved. And since export-oriented growth, for all its injustice, has been a huge boon for the workers in those nations, anything that curtails that growth is very much against their interests. A policy of good jobs in principle, but no jobs in practice, might assuage our consciences, but it is no favor to its alleged beneficiaries.

I think he’s right. Perhaps this is a chillingly bloodless way of looking at the world. It certainly challenges western self-righteousness. That self-righteousness is, in the end, based upon a kind of guilt. We feel bad that we benefit from the labour of Bangladeshis toiling in conditions that we would deem unacceptable in this country. But human development moves unevenly and what is appropriate, sensible or useful for one country at one stage of its improvement may not be appropriate, sensible or useful for another country at quite another stage.

Moreover, the beneficiaries in the west of all this cheap labour are not just large corporate concerns but, also, our own poor who would otherwise have to spend a greater proportion of their own meagre resources on clothing. This may not be the biggest point in the world but it is not an entirely trivial one either.

These deaths in Bangladesh are awful. There are good reasons for hoping that rapacious western countries take a bigger, closer, interest in the conditions under which their sub-contracted labourers toil. But western fastidiousness or guilt should not blind us to the fact that grim as they may be these sweatshops – and globalised capital – have been a force for good.


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  • Melvin

    I think all your points are very important considerations and agree that overall sweatshops seem to have had a place in developing countries transitioning out of poverty.
    However there seems to be a resignation in your tone implying there’s not a lot
    that can be done and that the deplorable conditions that lead to the Rana Plaza
    disaster “is a price the Bangladeshis themselves are prepared to pay”.
    I’d like to argue that the choices needn’t be between radical reform and retrogression, but that change is imperative.
    Furthermore I propose that instead of writing off consumer concern about whether products are being produced ethically as merely “a way of propping up our own self-esteem” – that this growing consumer awareness should instead be harnessed to help affect change for workers in developing countries.
    Firstly you say – “Making it significantly more difficult – and more expensive – to hire Bangladeshi workers is likely to actually impoverish Bangladesh.”
    It has been shown that change doesn’t need to be made “more difficult – and more expensive”. On a recent TV3NZ (2015) broadcast on Ethical Manufacturing Dr Amabel Hunting stated that studies have shown that if wages were doubled in your “average sweatshop” this would increase the cost of the clothes by around 2%. So even “our own poor” as you describe them, could still buy cheap clothing whilst helping to improve the lives of their fellow world citizens.
    It has also been shown that improved working conditions and pay are possible by the many companies already doing this.
    Levis Strauss, Motorola, and Mattel are three examples. (Arnold and Bowie 2003). If one company can do it – this provides an example and potentially a pathway for others to do the same until it becomes normal.
    Furthermore in a recent study published by Baptist World Aid (2015) about ethical standards in the fashion industry it was shown that even low price brands like H&M
    and Cotton On can thrive at the same time as managing high ethical standards.
    What needs to be considered is what evidence is there that improving conditions and pay leads to overall impoverishment for that country? Of course there are instances
    where layoffs have occurred due to employers costs increasing, but that’s a
    factor throughout the world and across all sectors, and can’t be a
    justification for working conditions that deny basic human rights and many
    times don’t even meet the laws already in place.
    Cheap labour shouldn’t mean poverty line labour. The “living wage” doesn’t have that moniker because it sounds quaint. It’s because people aren’t really living when they’re not making ends meet.
    Rana Plaza is an example of living on their knees becoming dying at their machines,
    so the workers were not better off than their compatriots working in the fields
    because they are dead or unable to work. It is an intolerable situation that
    must be changed.
    Perhaps they have been “a force for good” but if improvements are inevitable let’s really examine what can we do as “well-intentioned
    Powel says in his article “In defense of sweatshops” (2008) – that the development
    phase out of sweatshops “took about 150 years in Britain and the United States
    but closer to 30 years in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.”
    That’s 20% of the time taken for the second lot of countries compared to the first. As we have these models to learn from, and our marketplace and our world is now a
    radically different place to last century – I think it’s not unrealistic to
    expect and work hard for a speedier adjustment to take place for the remaining
    That brings me to my second point about harnessing western consumer guilt as a force for good.
    You quote Krugman as saying that “soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs” are responsible for improvements taking place in developing countries. These companies can’t exist without their customers. Regardless of Friedman’s argument that social responsibility is about acting for shareholders or Freeman’s – that all stakeholders should be considered, the bottom line is – without customers there are no companies.
    Consumer guilt is stemming from a better awareness of the realities of sweatshops. Many a misguided consumer might think that the solution would be to boycott a cheap labour country, and clearly that’s not the answer. But with better supply chain
    transparency real progress can be achieved by consumer’s awareness and
    subsequently their choices.
    Also discussed with Dr Amabel Hunting (TV3NZ) was that developed world consumers are becoming more aware of ethical issues and on an increasing basis it’s
    influencing their shopping choices. So even from a mere marketing perspective ethical manufacturing is fast becoming a choice that affects the bottom line.
    This kind of consumer pressure for garments to be made ethically will also help to
    prevent Multinationals from just moving to cheaper labour countries if the
    factories in their supply chains start to increase their prices. Another concern of pro
    sweatshop advocates. (Powell 2008)
    If we examine the ethics here we are weighing up the risk of losing jobs versus
    improving conditions for existing workers. From a Kantian standpoint it doesn’t seem feasible as consumers of the products being made to not pay what they are worth to the people producing them, and what they are worth surely includes a wage and working conditions that make lives worth living. Neither does it seem feasible that Multinationals should not do everything they can to treat their “employees” as valued and vital, not just because they are part of the supply chain, but because they are
    their fellow world citizens.
    In conclusion, if we recognize that Sweatshops are going to change and that they
    can – the discussion should focus on how that can happen faster. I believe that
    this can be done by using past models of countries transformations out of reliance
    on sweatshops, supply chain transparency, better consumer education and
    examples of Multinationals already making these improvements. Then “a force for good” will not be at the expense of those with no better alternatives and sweatshops can become a thing of the past.


    Arnold, D., & Bowie, N. E. (2003).Sweatshops and respect for persons. Business Ethics Quarterly, 13(2),

    Baptist World
    Aid (2015) The Australian Fashion Report
    Retrieved from

    Ethical Shopping Practices on the rise (2015)
    Retrieved from—report#axzz3Zbfa6vuZ

    Powell,Benjamin (2008) In Defense of “Sweatshops”
    Retrieved from

    Scholes,Vanessa (2015). Module Five. 71203 Business ethics. Open Polytechnic of
    New Zealand. Lower Hutt, NZ

  • Teabag

    I found your article very interesting. I agree that Bangladesh needs the economic lift that overseas investors provide, but I would like to take issue with a couple of points that you raise.

    Firstly you make the point that, ‘Capitalism can be a brutal mistress. But, viewed as dispassionately as possible, it is a price the Bangladeshis themselves are prepared to pay.’ I believe the ordinary Bangladeshi worker is not at all happy paying the price, and that foreign investors have a moral and social responsibility to make sure the factories making their products are suitable for purpose and the workers are treated fairly.

    Workers may be choosing to work in these factories as a perceived better option to rural occupations, but once there they suffer from both physical and psychological coercion. Coercion, according to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, means people are being used as a means to an end which takes away their dignity, autonomy and is morally wrong. (Arnold & Bowie, 2003). The ends in this case being massive profits for the shareholders and a growing economy for Bangladesh.

    Take 13 year old Sumon who sews clothing in Bangladesh. He describes one of the humiliating punishments at his factory as being forced to squat holding your ears for over an hour. He also reports being slapped forcefully on the face and back of the neck. This makes him feel like ‘it is better to die than to live in this world’ and he states he has no hope for the future. (Institute for Global and Human Rights, 2006, Nov 8). This is not a unique story.

    Perhaps the ultimate example of worker coercion was the Rana Plaza building collapse. When major cracks started to appear workers were initially evacuated, but under pressure to fill an order, they were forced to go back in by gang members holding sticks and threatening to beat them. (McMullen, 2014). An hour later, over 1000 workers were dead under the rubble.

    Another sign that factory workers are not happy is their attempts to unionise. According to the International Labour Office, 96 new trade unions were registered in the garment sector in 2013. (Hoskins, 2014). Unfortunately these attempts have not been wholly successful. For example, a union organiser named Ms Puspo, reported being kicked and punched and having her clothes torn for trying to organise a union. Another woman named Ms Begum was allegedly attacked with cutting shears. (Barta, 2013)

    Secondly, I don’t agree that sweatshops empower women. They are a threat to the human rights and dignity of women in particular. (McMullen, 2014). Woman outweigh men in the garment industry in Bangladesh and were largely neglected in the international media until the collapse of Rana Plaza. (Manik & Yardley, 2013). Women have to leave their babies and children, often unsupervised, to work long hours in the factories. One woman, Arifa, says she was initially allowed to go home at lunchtime to breastfeed her baby, but then her lunchtime was cut so she could no longer go home. (War on Want, 2012). She is now a union organiser for the National Garment Makers Federation!

    The claim that women in the garment industry have gained greater autonomy and self-awareness compared with their rural counterparts (Karim, 2014) needs to be set in the context of rising prices. Rice constitutes 70% of the caloric intake in Bangladesh. (“Market Monitor”, 2013) and in real terms, an urban wage buys less rice now compared to previous years. This effect is less marked in rural areas. (Zang et al, (2013). This is exacerbated by the fact that women often don’t receive the overtime they are due. (War on Want, 2012).

    Some say that responsibility does not lie with the corporations alone; that Western consumers should play their part by boycotting products made in Bangladesh. This is not the solution. More investment will support the Bangladeshi government to make changes and provide resources to properly enforce labour laws. (“Sweatshops and Child Labor”). We could also support charities such as UNICEF, War on Want, and Labour Behind the Label who are working to improve conditions in Bangladesh. This solution conforms to the utilitarian view of doing the most good and least harm for all. (Rakestraw. 2013).

    I believe Western corporations should do three main things to discharge their moral responsibilities towards factory workers in Bangladesh.

    Firstly set more realistic production targets to reduce the need for extensive overtime and take away some of the justification used by supervisors for beating workers.

    Secondly put less price pressure on factories so they can afford to improve working conditions. Even the factory directors who would like to make changes find it difficult to do so at the prices Western companies are prepared to pay. (Sweatshop free, 2013).

    Thirdly make more effort to thoroughly investigate factories. Factory directors are adept at hiding the truth from them. An 18 year old garment factory worker claimed that when buyers come on inspection the children are all hidden in the bathroom. (Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, 2013, Nov 9). Richard Bilton, a journalist posing as a buyer, was given fake timesheets that showed the previous shift ending at 5.30pm when he had actually witnessed the workers coming out at 2.30am. A worker who told him the factory owners keep two versions of the books – one for the buyers and one for the workers. (Bilton, 2013).

    Since Rana Plaza, there has been some good work done by Western buyers to try and improve building safety. According to Amy Westervelt ‘out of 3,508 factories identified as exporting clothing from Bangladesh, almost 75% have gone through building fire and safety assessments.’ Some have closed as a result and some have undergone remedial work. (Westervelt, 2015). However, Westervelt says not as much has been done to improve working conditions. It is tragic that it took such a loss of life to wake Western corporations up to their moral responsibilities.


    Arnold, D., & Bowie, N. E. (2003).Sweatshops and respect for persons. Business Ethics Quarterly, 13(2), 221–242.

    Barta, P., (2013) Bangladesh Workers Face Fight to Form Unions. Retrieved from:

    Bilton, R., (2013), Bangladeshi factory workers locked in on 19-hour shifts. Retrieved from:

    Hoskins, T., (2014), Building Trade Unions in Bangladesh will help prevent another Rana Plaza. Retrieved from:

    Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, (2006, November 8). Child Labor: 13 year-old Sumon Sews Clothing for Hanes. Video posted to:

    Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, (2006, November 9), Child Labor: Teenager Sews Clothing for Hanes and Puma. Video posted to:

    Karim Lamia, Analyzing Women’s Empowerment: Microfinance and Garment Labor in Bangladesh (2015) retrieved from:…/Karim_Vol38No2.pdf

    McMullen, A., (2014) Sweatshops need feminism. Retrieved from:

    Manik, J., & Yardley, J,., (2013). Building collapse in Bangladesh Leaves Scores Dead, The New York Times, April 24, 2013. Retrieved from:>

    Massie, A., (2013, April 26). In Praise of Sweatshops. [Weblog post] Retrieved from:

    Rakestraw, M., (2013). Thinking Critically: Who’s responsible for what happens when in sweatshops and what do we do about it? Retrieved from:

    Sweatshops and Child Labour, n.d. Retrieved from:

    Sweatshop free, (2013), Fashion Victims – Bangladesh: The Shocking Truth behind the real cost of your favourite clothes, Bangladeshi lives. Retrieved from:

    The Market Monitor – Trends and Impacts of Staple Food Prices in Vulnerable Countries, (2013). Retrieved from:

    Unicef New Zealand, (n.d.) Child Labour retrieved from:

    War on Want, (2012, April 13) Arifa the life of a sweatshop worker. Video posted to:

    Westervelt, A., (2015), Two years after Rana Plaza, have conditions improved in Bangladesh’s factories? Retrieved from:
    Zang, X., Rashid, S., Ahmad, K., Mueller, K., Lee, H., Lemma, S., Belal, S., Ahmed, A., (2013) Rising Wages in Bangladesh. IFPRI Discussion Paper 01249.

  • Alexander Heath

    “But, viewed as dispassionately as possible, it is a price the Bangladeshis themselves are prepared to pay.”…. Really? Low wages and poor conditions are one thing, but it seems doubtful that over 1,000 people were willing to pay with their lives. Also, you took Mr. Bajaj’s article in the NYT about increased wages in Bangladesh out of context with the subjective statement “Life in Bangladesh is getting better” by 1. making that kind of assumption and 2. not acknowledging the 10% rise in inflation nor the fact that large numbers of the nation’s citizens are unhappy with such a small increase and continue to protest. If you want to talk about growth, examine HDI in the country and let us know about that. Looking solely at GDP as an indicator of growth is tremendously problematic.

    Please, in the future, do your readers the favor of trying to look at issues as objectively as possible. Additionally, please try to avoid publishing such lengthy quotes by others. Just cite so we can see what information you’ve used to form an opinion.

  • milnerj

    While there is sufficient evidence to support the notion that sweatshops have added to the economic development of third world nations and, subsequently, stimulated much needed growth; the thought of claiming sweatshops as an overall success, or “victory” for those who work in these conditions is a gross perversion of the truth. The substandard working conditions in these factories should be considered unacceptable, regardless of socio-economic norms or status; local wages can surely be adjusted to reflect the standard of living in domestic markets, and however, everyone deserves a safe working environment. The conversation regarding sweatshops is often debated on the basis of poor wages, though I would challenge this has moved far beyond an economic concern and has digressed to a much more serious issue – a humanitarian concern. As is evidenced through the unthinkable tragedies in Karachi and Dhaka this past year, there is clearly not enough being done to protect these workers.

    For too long we have watched large corporations in the developed world capitalize off the low labour costs that are derived from employing workers in third world nations; companies who plead ignorance by obliging with minimal regulatory standards, relying on local laws and inspections to ensure that working standards are deemed acceptable. I believe it is time for these corporations to get actively involved in the full life cycle of their products; to take the same pride and due diligence in the production of these products at the local level, as they do in the distribution of them at the domestic one. Furthermore, there should be an onus on domestic governments to regulate and penalize corporations for abuses of any laws in production environments, we would not deem acceptable on home soil. It is painfully ironic how, living In a society where we so often feel the need to impose our “human rights” beliefs on other nations, we can so easily turn a blind eye to the same atrocities, simply because there are economic benefits derived for domestic corporations.

  • Brindian

    Massie says:

    “Perhaps this is a chillingly bloodless way of looking at the world. It
    certainly challenges western self-righteousness. That self-righteousness
    is, in the end, based upon a kind of guilt. We feel bad that we benefit
    from the labour of Bangladeshis toiling in conditions that we would
    deem unacceptable in this country.”

    It is strange to assume the worst conditions and wages are the only ones possible. What is the basis for this assumption?

    Massie makes the case for Stalin very well: that he could not AFFORD to be kinder. In the long run, Communism would have become more humane, too. So why all the windy moralising about it?

    Massie’s is also a curious way of interpreting Western history: in the West workers did not improve their lives just by a neutral economic process: they had to fight hard for higher wages and welfare legislation.

  • Brindian

    Massie marvels:

    “In the context of Bangladesh or Pakistan the workers in these factories are the lucky ones.”
    I ask: if this is all world capitalism has to offer, why really blame the Hitlers and the Stalins?

  • Brindian

    Massie pontificates:

    “But human development moves unevenly and what is appropriate, sensible or useful for one country at one stage of its improvement may not be appropriate, sensible or useful for another country at quite another stage.”
    This is an argument for Hitler, I presume?


    I understand your point. But I don’ think that is the question at hand. What is the normality that sweatshops are ever acceptable? Why not factories? Aside from this, whether sweatshops are a force for good or not, there is no excuse for forcing young men and women back into a work place which was officially designated unfit for purpose.


    Massie: you are a dangerous yet pathetic nincompoop: You use twisted thought and words to further punish the enslaved and exploited. Earlier manifestations of you believed the Highland Clearances to be an inevitable, good idea.

  • sandra350

    the stupidity of this argument beggars belief.

    FACT: the owner of the factory VIOLATED existing SAFETY REGULATIONS through corruption. I guess Mr. Massie approves of govt corruption.

    Bangladeshi workers have been organizing for yrs and are protesting angrily since the collapse demanding greater attention to safety regulations.

    I guess Mr. Massie knows better than Bangladeshi workers what’s best for them.

    So hear hear for people dying because some ignorant classist lowlife like Mr. Massie can pontificate about his personal ideological biases defending the right of rich folk to murder poor folk with total impunity.

  • Brindian

    What fascinates me most of all is how organs like the Spectator in the West warble so much about human rights when some little pop group in Russia is jailed, have so much to say deploring the crimes of Stalin or Mao and yet, when it comes to the most grotesque examples of inhumanity in the capitalist world, find next to impossible to admit there is anything to worry about.
    I have long been critical of capitalism and Western imperialism. But is it really necessary to show the likes of me so horrifically every single day how right we are when we talk about the heartlessness of capitalism?

  • bengeo

    Health and safety not “gone mad”.

  • Brindian

    Sooner or later there will be a better and more humane world, one which will deserve the name human, where man will not be a cannibal to his fellow man. I just want it to happen sooner.

  • Britindian

    This article is deliberately appalling, with purpose. Massie is comparatively civilized as compared to other Spectator writers, but he has to show the editor now and then that he has a cold soul. Otherwise he would be fired. So this event in Bangladesh was his chance to refurbish his Spectator credentials, prove that he is as hard as the rest.
    I find it fascinating how political discourse in the West is becoming more and more hard-hearted. We are going back in time, morally. Since Communism no longer poses a serious threat or competition, the capitalists can come out in their true colours. It is not a pretty sight. We are heading into dark times.

    • AndrewMelville


  • Daniel Maris

    What an appalling article. THere is no shortage of money to put in place proper safety conditions. There is corruption in Bangladesh from top to bottom. Mauritius is also a poor country in textiles but it has far fewer problems.

    The answer is for Western countries to threaten to stop imports of textiles from these countries – watch them suddenly finds ways of imposing proper safety controls.

  • Britindian

    It’s always a pleasure to meet capitalist morality. It’s good to know your enemy.

  • Britindian

    What does Massie’s article mean? Perhaps that his children will not work in sweat shops. So he feels he can be complacent about them.
    The moral might be: Men rate others cheaply and themselves not much higher.

  • Britindian

    In praise of sweatshops? What if Massie or his child had to work in them? But he knows there is small chance of this and so he can afford to be complacent.
    Is there such a thing as human decency?

  • Britindian

    How terrible that there are apparently so many people in countries like Britain who see the stark inhumanity of what is happening in places like this Bangladeshi factory, the cries of pain of people dying in extreme suffering, and yet are so soulless as to say this is an acceptable state of affairs….!

  • Britindian

    Massie’s style of cold blooded capitalism must indeed be a wonderfully humane order if these lucky Bangladeshis had the choice of escaping rural misery by working in a building that crashed. All so that the Western poor could afford pretty clothes!
    What a world! What morality!

    • AndrewMelville

      What planet are you from? Britain is not repeat not responsible for how dumps such Bangladesh run their countries. Those responsibilities fall squarely at the feet of … The Bangladeshis. Are you proposing a new era of colonialism? That Britain should again assume ” the white man’s burden” and sort out the Bangladeshi economy and its labour codes?

      Further surely you must see that when Britain buys “pretty clothes” it helps ALL Bangladeshis, even those who work in these hideous sweatshops. Because awful as they are, they are better than starving or life back in the village.

      • Brindian

        Slave owners always argue like that.

        • AndrewMelville

          What a silly comment. We could show our compassion for the Bangladeshis by not buying their gear – so they would starve. Or we could bring back the Raj and go in and organize their society and economy. Or we could let them get on with it themselves.

          • Brindian

            You could show your compassion by insisting that the products sold by Western companies and others from Bangladesh and everywhere else were made in decent conditions. How about that?
            As for the Raj, in case you are inclined to nostalgia on that score, 25 million Indians are estimated to have perished in famines under British rule, which left India after nearly 200 years with a pitiful and even lower literacy rate than when it began.

            • AndrewMelville

              You really are witless. My point about the Raj was that we are being urged again to take up the white man’s burden and assume responsibilities for other societies, that is to re-institute a form of the Raj. To be clear: I do not favour this idea – gottit?

              How many times to we have to learn this lesson: societies must organize themselves. We can not do it for them. It didn’t work under a formal empire (eg. the Raj), it doesn’t work now in an informal empire (e.g. the Yanks in Afghanistan or Iraq), and it would work through economic imperialism (e.g. simplistic, feel good movements of western consumers such as Fair Trade or the about to be born Bangladeshi Garment Working Conditions Brotherhood of Britain).

              The issue here is not about compassion – everyone is appalled by what happened – the issue is what works, and what is effective in the long run. I say again societies have to organize themselves. Well meaning outsiders only f*ck it up – over and over again (eg. the utter mess that is Haiti despite $Gazillions spent and being spent by the NGO industry there).

              • Brindian

                Note the brute cruelty and reptilian failure of feeling in Massie’ s central drone:

                “Of course the poor in China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh and elsewhere remain poor. The point is, however, that they are not as poor as they were. In relative and absolute terms most of them have never had it so good.”

                Is this good enough? Not to suffer the very worst is made out to be paradisal. How if Massie were in that situtation and told he had never had it so good?
                These human beings work for you: they make the goods you use. Should they not have some standard of existence above the unimaginably pitiable? Should they not get more than the barest pittance and be given the possiblity of improvement and hope and not mere brute toil for a miserable fate?
                Is there one spark of generosity in you? Do you realise what an unutterably mean and soulless creature your attitude makes you?

                • AndrewMelville

                  I sympathize with your concern, so I went back and re-read Massie’s article to see if I had missed a cruel tone. I did not. Massie’s sympathy for the poor wretches in Bangladesh is quite clear. There is no hint of “brute cruelty and reptilian failure of feeling” – on the contrary it is clear that he cares about the people. but he is clear eyed and rational about the situation. Awful as their lives are, they are getting better and have always been much better than the lives they led in the rural villages whence they fled to these jobs.

                  I urge you to think clearly and not just emote and make ad hominem attacks on others. I’ll try to do te same.

                • Brindian

                  How if Massie and his children were in that situation and told he had never had it so good? Brute toil nearly all hours of the day, no medical coverage, misery of a kind unimaginable.

                  These human beings work for you: they make the goods you use. Should they not have some standard of existence above the unimaginably pitiable? Should they not get more than the barest pittance and be given the possibility of improvement and hope and not mere brute toil for a miserable fate?
                  Is there one spark of generosity in you? Marx and Dickens in their time wrestled with the stony hearts of the Western better off. We are going through it all over again. It helps me understand history’s savage events, the Hitlers and the Stalins; they happen because the better off of us are so hard-hearted.

                • AndrewMelville

                  Well if it were true they might acknowledge it while still hoping for something better. What precisely is your point? Everyone – you, Massie and I deplore the wretched lives these folk lead. But what is to be done? Other countries can’t fix it – only the Bangladeshis can.

                  Did you see the solution of the Disney Corporation? They have pulled out of Bangladesh entirely. Problem solved. Their hands are clean. Everyone is happy – except for the few thousand Bangladeshi ex-Disney workers who now have no jobs and whose wretched lives are about to get much worse. Very sad.

                • Brndian

                  It’s not about cutting Bangladesh out of trade, but making sure the goods made there that are sold abroad are made in decent condtions of labour and that the workers involved get a decent share of the profits. If tough rules to this effect are enforced in the countries that give Bangladesh preferential trading conditions the government there will wake up pronto to its responsibilites and the companies involved will act too.

                • AndrewMelville

                  Won’t happen. You must believe in Father Christmas too. You might also have seen today that the Bangladeshi Minister of Finance described the accident as “no big deal.” If the Bangladeshis are unwilling there is even less chance that western hang wringers will affect change there. It is up to them to improve themselves.

                  If western consumers wish to help, they should buy lots of good labelled Made in Bangladesh – regardless of where and how. The higher demand will lead to higher wages and better conditions – nothing else will.

                • Brndian

                  What you are advocating is an argument that would have pleased defenders of slavery: if Westerners simply bought enough sugar and the slave holders got super rich, they might have made life easier for the slaves.

                  Realism tells us Bangladeshi workers will not put up with the barbaric conditions they are in. They may be “better” than the previous conditions, but standards of comparison go up with productivity and technology. This is what happened in the West, too: workers organised and fought employers for better wages as they noticed the productivity of their labour.

                  Humans are not robots. If they were you would be right. But unluckily for you and your like, humans know the difference between right and wrong, injustice and justice. They know it is wrong to make generations of people suffer inhuman conditions for the obscene profit of a few.

                • Brndian

                  Here is what Reuters reports:

                  “The collapse was the third deadly incident in six months that raised questions about worker safety and Labor conditions in Bangladesh. Human-rights groups say there has never been a case in which a factory owner was prosecuted
                  over the deaths of workers.

                  “After this accident we are very scared and worried about such an accident happening at our factory,” said garment worker Farida Parveen.

                  “We have demanded that the government take action and examine all factories so that we can all work in a good environment.”

                  “Late on Tuesday, the EU issued a brief statement expressing concern and
                  suggested it would look at Bangladesh’s preferential trade access to the EU
                  market in considering taking action to encourage better safety standards and
                  labor conditions.

                  “The EU is presently considering appropriate action, including through the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) – through which Bangladesh currently
                  receives duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market under the ‘Everything But Arms’ scheme – in order to incentivise responsible management of supply
                  chains involving developing countries,” said the statement, issued by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht.

                  About 3.6 million people work in Bangladesh’s garment industry, making it the world’s second-largest apparel exporter. The bulk of exports – 60 percent -go to

                  Ashton and de Gucht said they were deeply saddened by the “terrible loss of life”, particularly because it followed a fire in the Tazreen Fashion factory in a Dhaka suburb in November that killed 112 people.

                  “The sheer scale of this disaster and the alleged criminality around the building’s construction is finally becoming clear to the world,” Ashton and de
                  Gucht said.”

                • AndrewMelville

                  I give up.

                  You persist wilfully in believing that I like the the situation in Bangladesh. I don’t. It’s a clear example of why that is such a p*ss poor society and culture.

                  You refuse to accept that people and countries have to sort our their own problems. In fact it only makes matters worse when do gooders interfere.

                  I sincerely hope the Bangladeshi workers rise up and strike down the corrupt government and upper classes under which they suffer. But it ain’t my job to do so. Meanwhile, I will go out of my way to buy Bangladeshi made clothing in order to keep the poor wretches in employment.

                • Brndan

                  I will accept that you deplore the misery, but I insist that interest from outside can, in certain situations, make a big difference. Bangladesh is a very precariously situated country, and pressure on its regime can deliver good results. Westerners, too, have a lot to gain in this sort of affair: they can prove their moral credentials, by showing they acted to relieve inhuman suffering.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    I assume that there are some even minimal safety laws governing workplaces in Bangladesh.
    I also assume that if fire exits are locked or blocked and if visibly worrying cracks appear in buildings as has happened in recent cases there, even the most minimum regulations are not being observed or enforced.
    Is Primark or whoever to send their own inspectors to Bangladesh with powers to overrule or supplant government inspectors there? Where does foreign concern for local workers end and neo-colonialism begin?

    • AndrewMelville

      At the very first step.

  • Thomas Ducheyne

    This article contains a few errors of judgment.

    1 ° People do not move to the city because of better living conditions there but because there simply are not enough jobs in agriculture.
    2 ° Even if it is true that wages in the industrial sector are higher than in agriculture: Agricultural workers have more access to selfprovident, domestic activities (food, textiles, …) These alternative sources of income do not contribute to GDP but must be taken into account to evaluate living conditions

    • HJ777

      “People do not move to the city because of better living conditions there but because there simply are not enough jobs in agriculture.”

      Therefore they are richer in the cities than they would be staying in the countryside (as they had to previously due to no work in the cities either).

  • AndrewMelville

    I am fed up listening to the unco good wringing their hands and wailing about this accident. Horrible? Yes. Our fault? No. Not in the slightest. Our task to fix? No. That’s the job of the Bangladeshis and their government.

    Why are folks so keen to assume responsibility for other societies? I thought colonialism was discredited.

    • Spammo Twatbury

      Fair enough. We’ll be keeping our noses out of other countries’ business entirely from now on, then? No more bombing, no more invading, no more subverting governments?

      • AndrewMelville

        I heartily agree with that – except when such interference is in our national interest. E.g. Afganistan – a nasty hole which is not our responsibility to fix. When they are vile enough to host terrorist training camps, we should feel free to engage in a search and destroy mission – and then leave, save for a promise to return and have a do over should they again permit the terrorist camps to reform.

        • mmghosh

          It depends on whether you have a sufficiently long memory. It wasn’t that long ago when the very same “terrorists” were “brave resistance fighters” being hosted in the White House, or having space shuttle flights dedicated to them. Or had you forgotten?

          • AndrewMelville

            I remember all too well. I think the US got its strategy out of a Crackerjack box. At best they can manage tactics – and pretty ineffective ones at that.

            In Afganistan they eagerly gave training, money & arms to the tribes to embarrass the Ruskies – without a thought to what would happen next. Then they were dumb enough to try to occupy the same dump – despite the Ruskie example to guide them.

            That’s kinda my point. The Yanks like to interfere – worse they try to do it with money rather than with diplomacy or a short sharp raid – depending on the circumstances. And they make everything a moral crusade rather than a simple case of self interest.

            • mmghosh

              I don’t think the Yanks are separate from the Brits who are separate from Russkies. The fact is that there are rich countries who interfere in (and trade with) poorer countries with advantages for both (otherwise they wouldn’t do it, would they?). In this particular case, it seems to a case of greed. Over here in the subcontinent, it is pretty widely known that one can construct one (unauthorised) floor above what planning permission is granted for. This contractor apparently made 3 extra floors, greasing palms along the way – in an alluvial flood plain. One can be business-minded and intelligent or exploitative and stupid as well – as Robert Owen showed in Scotland 200 years ago.

              • AndrewMelville

                I agree that no country should interfere with another – save and except when it is required to preserve national interest. But that means all types of interference – including do gooders seeking to amend the Bangladeshi building code, municipal building inspectors and courts. Where would it end? At what point to we accept that we should focus on managing our own affairs and let others manage theirs?

                • mmghosh

                  Certainly there can be (and are) minimum standards of worker’s rights – not being subjected to an undue risk of death being one of them, also child labour and so forth, so that prices are not undercut to the point that workers lives are at risk. If there is to be reasonably fair competition then there should be a (reasonably small) set of universal working conditions. This could be enforced by the market – a common purchasers policy, for example, which could be agreed among buyers.

                • AndrewMelville

                  Sounds like a good idea. I hope the manufacturers and governments of Bangladesh get on with it. However, it has nothing to do with western firms. The hysteria which accompanies this sad case will lead to reduced employment in Bangladesh and increased misery there. Press coverage of those conditions will be zero, and western consumers can go their merry way sipping fair trade lattes and wearing some new brand of fair trade clothing.

                • mmghosh

                  I doubt very much whether significant change will happen. This is only the latest in the series of what garment workers have had to take over the past 200 years.


                  “Again and again we see the same pattern, which stretches back to the original hiring of rural New England girls to operate the first spinning and weaving machines. The girls were delighted, for the most part, to leave behind rural drudgery. After a few decades, management began various cost-cutting measures that eventually became untenable. Labor activism spread rapidly and was countered, sometimes brutally. To avoid increased expenses associated with labor reform, the mill managers essentially would flush their working population and pull in a new one. Protestants were flushed in favor of destitute Catholics. The Irish were hired in the same New England mills in the 1840s, and then, when they became too demanding, the French Canadians, the Italians — waves of immigrants, one after the other.

                  In this way, for the last 200 years, garment manufacturing has flowed from ethnicity to ethnicity, as well as from region to region, from New England to the Middle Atlantic states, from North to South. Each group, when it begins to demand more accountability and a living wage, is discarded. Manufacturing change flows quickly to stay ahead of legislative change. Like water, industrial management seeks a route of least resistance — eventually flowing out of our shores altogether in the 1990s and, finally, flooding (among many other places) the alluvial plains of Bangladesh.

                  This cycle has its positive elements, offering an alternative to rural poverty and producing cheap clothing, sometimes for those regions and ethnicities that once were the system’s underclass.

                  And yet, with unvarying historical predictability, the cycle also involves tremendous suffering: riots, like those in Dhaka last year; the persecution of labor organizers, like Aminul Islam, who was tortured and murdered last year; legislative dodges, like the perennial lagging of Bangladesh’s minimum wage; child-labor infractions that leave whole populations reaching adulthood without money, education or hope; and the generations of workers who are laid off during downturns and end up with nothing to show for a life of toil. And then there are the catastrophic disasters arising from the interminable squeezing of expense.”

  • WalterPaulKomarnicki

    what about the unions? Not a word, eh? That’s because a strong union would never tolerate such odious conditions. Management for the most part are seemingly unconcerned and unmoved over building, safety and aesthetic standards.

  • lojolondon

    This reminds me of the idiotic, insulting Peter Hain, waddling though South Africa on BBC2 this week, curling his nose up at the fact that people live in a house with no electricity, and on about £100 a month. Just looking at the BBC webpage appended clearly illustrates that SA average wage is $1400US – well above the world average wage. And clearly, SAfricans are far better off than the poor people in Bangladesh! No perspective at all, Peter.

    • Brindian

      Being better off than Bangladesh is the standard of well being? How would you like to live without electricity and on £100 a month?

  • 15peter20

    ‘That self-righteousness is, in the end, based upon a kind of guilt. We feel bad that we benefit from the labour of Bangladeshis toiling in conditions that we would deem unacceptable in this country. But human development moves unevenly and what is appropriate, sensible or useful for one country at one stage of its improvement may not be appropriate, sensible or useful for another country at quite another stage.’

    A non sequitur, but also a nastily amoral non sequitur. Yes, we do indeed ‘feel bad’ about working conditions in Bangladesh, just as right-thinking people would if those conditions were found here, as of course they once were. That’s because workshop conditions are appalling. Some vague, ends-over-means, weirdly Hegelian argument about ‘human development’ (we are so much better off having lots of cheap clothes) won’t cut it, mustard-wise. The same argument was used to justify the Five Year Plans. What, though, is the ‘appropriate’ and ‘sensible’ amount of human misery at this stage?

    • rodliddle

      this. Every word of it. Nasty little smug right wing argument.

      • A. S.

        No, a reflection of and explanation for the realities of the world.

        • Britindian

          In that case do not point fingers at criminals like Hitler and Stalin.

  • Eddie

    I like sweetshops too. Yum…

    • Daniel Maris

      Well take this liquorice shoe lace and shove it up your callous disregard – after removing your £1.50 tee shirt.

  • andagain

    I’ve always said that people do not move to third-world cities in order to be poorer than in the countryside.

    Incidently, would anyone in the western world care about this collapsed building if it had not included a clothing factory?

    • Angus McLellan

      Yes, I’d care. If I knew about it. Which I probably wouldn’t.

      No man is an island, yadda, yadda. Even Mr Massie isn’t going that far. He’s far too much the gentleman to lower himself to crude trolling.

      • andagain

        Do you make any efforts to find out about collapsed buildings in Bangladesh? Do you know anyone who does?

        If not, in what way do you or anyone you know care about collapsed buildings in Bangladesh?

        Which is why the media outside Bangladesh would not make anything of this collapsed building if there had not been a clothes factory inside. They know that no one would really be interested.

        (And why should they? Something like five million people must die of something or other every day – it is humanly impossible to care about more than a negligible fraction of these people.)

        • Britindian

          Yes, so why blame Hitler or Stalin?

  • jackowain

    A fair and correct point, but a little wide of the mark nonetheless. Tragedies such as
    this one (sadly, there are many) shouldn’t undermine globalisation, and to be
    honest it is too strong to be undermined. But they should bring into question
    some of the less sustainable patterns associated with consumerism as a branch of
    capitalism. For example, if our moral and societal preferences rule certain
    practices as unethical when applied to our own population, then we should be
    applying the same morals to our appraisals of conditions elsewhere,
    particularly when it is our demand which promotes them. Globalisation should
    not just mean that industrialism spreads across the globe, it should also take
    human rights with it. This tragic event, and others like it, should act as a
    wake-up call similar to the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in changing the
    expectations we have for minimum levels of quality assurance. As for the idea
    that having minimum standards would draw work back to the West, I don’t buy it.
    The expectations of workers in Europe in particular are not just based on
    safety and wage levels but on status and prospects, and imposing safety
    conditions on global labour markets won’t suddenly bring the world up to this

  • FF42

    Everyone, no matter where they are in world or how little they are paid, are entitled to go to work and not have the building collapse on them. People are angry in Bangladesh too.

    The main responsibility for ensuring standards are met lies with the local authorities, Corruption is no more acceptable in poorer societies than rich ones. Nevertheless if consumers can make a difference through the companies we buy stuff from, we should choose to do so.

    • David Lindsay

      Not only is Britain’s only remaining clothing factory in Weatherfield, while the garments worn in the real world are produced in the sweatshops of places like Bangladesh.

      But for decades now, this island standing on centuries’ worth of coal has instead been importing that fuel, in such quantities as to have provided over half of the power during the recent, if concluded, harsh winter.

      Imported it from, among other things, child and slave labour in South America. Anything, anything at all, to break the miners at home.

      These matters are now being discussed in earnest. Let that discussion range far and wide.

      • Lee Morgan

        What does the ethnicity or nationality of the workforce and ownership of clothing factories in Britain have to do with this issue? The companies that are here are registered and pay tax, we have an entire industrial estate in North London dedicated to the fabrication of garments! What’s your point?

    • Noa

      Follow the supply chain back to the UK and you will find that the middle men between the direct sellers like Primark and the manufacturers are of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin operating from UK based businesses. They are the primary importers, liaising with and often the actual manufacturers.
      And they are happy to exploit both the first and third world in their greed and ambition.

  • Colonel Shotover

    Those who argue for minimum world standards for working conditions are, of course, arguing for a transfer of jobs from poorer countries to richer ones. They are saying “stuff the poor, my conscience is more important than your self-improvement”.

    • Ken Westmoreland

      Not really. Even with increased ‘elf ‘n safety’ costs, labour in these places still works out cheaper. While we’re at it, let’s bring back workhouses here and send children up chimneys.

    • Britindian

      Correct. That’s why slavery should never have been abolished, nor the right of small children to go up chimneys.

    • bengeo

      It is reported, they are paid the equivalent of £1.00 a week.

      • Eddie

        I can assure you that their bosses are not. (And anyway, £1 a week is more than an intern gets in the UK! And I once worked for £50 a week here 25 years ago, and prices here are probably 200 times higher).
        Why do lefties and do-gooders always want to highlight how much the lowest paid get paid in the Third world?
        What about the factory owners? The landlords? The landowners? The politicians? The millionaired? The billionaires?

        • bengeo

          And your point?

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