Now is not the time to defend sweatshops

Abstract arguments about the benefits of outsourcing have no place in defending criminal negligence, here or overseas.

Yesterday Rana Plaza, a Bangladeshi clothing factory and shopping mall, collapsed, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. According to BBC News, "the factory owners had ignored warnings not to allow their workers into the building after cracks were noticed on Tuesday." As a result, the Bangladeshi High Court has summoned the owner of the building, as well as senior staff at the factories, to appear before the court next week. The factory owners themselves are reported to have gone into hiding.

The Telegraph's David Blair is unequivocal: we take the blame.

One of Rana Plaza’s factories – New Wave – supplied Primark, the bargain clothing chain with 161 branches in Britain, and Bonmarché, another budget retailer with its head office in Wakefield and 360 stores across the country. They may not have known it, but these two companies were buying products made by people working in a death trap.

But the rush to the counterintuitive take is quicker every day. In fact, write Alex Massie and Matt Yglesias, we shouldn't be so quick to jump to conclusions. Yglesias writes:

Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it's entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good… Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That's true whether you're talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus.

While Massie adds:

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.

The question of the morality of sweatshops is an old one. So old, in fact, that many consider it settled, giving arguments like Paul Krugman's 1997 piece "In Praise of Cheap Labour" the final word.

And indeed, those arguments – and the bulk of Massie's piece is also comprised of defending sweatshops in general – are convincing. Workers in sweatshops frequently earn more than the agricultural labourers that they are recruited from, and usually enjoy better conditions to boot, so in a way, they aren't treated badly at all. And the labourers are paid from money overseas, rendering sweatshops a sort of decentralised international aid: you buy clothes from Primark, and Primark gives some money to a poor Bangladeshi labourer! It's almost like charity.

But not only is the value of sweatshops to developing nations not actually a settled argument, it bears very little relationship to the issue at hand here.

Rana Plaza's building standards were illegal under Bangladesh's own laws. This is not a case of hardy foreign workers taking jobs that westerners wouldn't; nor is it a case of the cost of living being lower overseas, enabling cheaper goods with less money spent on wages. It is a case of criminal exploitation of labour: criminal by our standards, and criminal by Bangladesh's

The argument in defence of sweatshops relies on the point that free and equal exchange is mutually beneficial. That's claimed on a national level, that Britain exchanging money for Bangladeshi labour makes Britain and Bangladesh better off, and on a personal one, that employers exchanging money for employee's labour makes them both better off. But the deal here was not free and equal: employees were not warned that the danger of their job had increased vastly after the first cracks were noticed four days ago. There was no choice, there was no mutually beneficial exchange. There was just exploitation, and death.

There is a time for the defence of sweatshops. That time is not now. Now is the time for asking why it is that our international companies can't even buy from suppliers which follow the meagre labour protections which are afforded to workers in the developing nations they operate in.

Primark, for its part, says that "the company is shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident at Savar, near Dhaka, and expresses its condolences to all of those involved." But sadness is not the point. When Primark, and Bonmarché, and all the other contractors who squeeze margins down to the last penny, start using suppliers who actually live up to the minimum standards already in place, then we can have the argument about whether those standards ought to be raised. That's the time Krugman's argument might be needed. But today, the wrongdoing is clear, and the last thing needed is a defence of it.

Bangladeshi volunteers and rescue workers assist in rescue operations 48 hours after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide