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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle