I am writing in response to Mark Nichols’ letter of May 11 concerning our national complicity in the deadly collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, a factory in which employees manufactured clothes for Joe Fresh and other enterprises in Canada. Mr. Nichols seems to feel that our desire to pay less for such items contributed to the disaster. I object.
Let us imagine that Joe Fresh, indeed, decided to pay the workers in Bangladesh a decent, Canadian wage. As a consequence, Joe Fresh would have to raise the price of its clothing to compensate for the increased labour costs. Great, since Mr. Nichols maintains he is “quite willing to pay a significantly higher price for clothing so as not to exploit my fellow human being.”
Yet, he also realistically fears he “may be in the minority” and, if so, we can bet that a competitor would immediately pay slightly lower wages at another Bangladeshi factory (and since Bangladeshis are underemployed, it will find no shortage of cheap labour). The competitor lowers the price on
its clothing and attracts many of Joe Fresh’s customers. Joe Fresh goes out
of business and Mr. Nichols’ “fellow human beings” are making low
wages again, this time for the competitor.
What Joe Fresh had done instead is, along with several other companies, signed an agreement to significantly improve the buildings where their garments are made. This was the result of overwhelming public pressure, a lot of bad press, and (though we cynically think it is an endangered species in corporate culture) pure conscience.
The presence of global corporations in Bangladesh is good for that country, but we have to let the market decide the labour wages. No other arrangement is economically possible. And the alternative is continued poverty and misery for Bangladeshis. Rather, as it stands, Bangladeshis have the opportunity to organize, slowly increase their wages, demand better living and working conditions, and eventually build for themselves a functioning, self-sustaining economy with a thriving middle-class. Just like us.