Despite its status as the 8th most populous country in the world, Bangladesh usually avoids the attention (and interference) of the West. But shocking news of a fire that killed over 120 workers in one of Tazreen’s garment factory has occasioned a second look at the affairs of this South Asian country. Reaction to the Tazreen tragedy has been exacerbated by echoes of industrial accidents still present in Western memory, most notably the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. A century ago, escape routes had been locked to prevent employee theft, while in this modern case, escape routes were carelessly blocked by stacks of textile products. In both, hundreds lost their life as they burnt, suffocated, and jumped from windows and down elevator shafts. Horrifying accounts of the Shirtwaist accident spurred safety laws and unionization in New York City. Now outsiders expect the same to be done over Tazreen.
But an obstinate Bangladeshi government has refrained from intervening and forcing the textile industry to repair faulty electrical wiring and provide ample emergency exits, just as it has refrained from enforcing a long list of safety regulations already on the books. These measures, which would go a long way toward preventing fires, would also drive costs up and contracts away. As the second largest garment exporter in the world, Bangladesh is well aware that the $20 billion a year garment manufacturing industry provided the heart of four decades of economic growth. Currently, it provides jobs to over 3 million impoverished citizens, 80% of whom are women. Garment work, a source of independent income, when combined with increases in social status that resulted from Bangladesh’s wildly successful family planning initiatives, has empowered women to become leaders of the country’s progress and development. Mothers, more likely than their husbands to invest in education, healthcare, and capital programs, are largely responsible for the declining poverty rate in Bangladesh, which has fallen from 80% at the time of independence in 1971 to 30% today. And the country’s empowerment of women, sourced in employment opportunities in industries such as garment manufacture, contextualized the birth of women-only microcredit, a concept developed in Bangladesh by the Grameen Bank.
With these benefits in mind, even leaders who fully sympathize with the plight of laborers have a difficult time weighing the safety and human dignity of today against the prosperity and self-esteem of a better tomorrow. Yet Zabar Sobhan, a commentator living in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, stated a poignant observation on the matter: “The harsher and even more difficult truth is that, as appalling as they are, these sweatshops are signs of a kind of advancement… but,” and this is the critical observation, “burning to death is not an improvement over starving to death.” This honest summary, I think, is the ultimate source of discomfort for Western observers. People who decry global capitalism find peace by ignoring its benefits, and people who vehemently deny the importance of safety regulations find peace by ignoring its costs. There is no easy solution. For those of us who see both perspectives, there is no option but to swallow the discomfort and dream up solutions that respect both sides of the equation. Here’s one for starters: directly appropriate a fraction of Bangladesh’s questionably spent multi-billion dollar aid budget to subsidize safety improvements we know are necessary.