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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Michael Heseltine calls for “second referendum or general election” on the Brexit deal

The Tory peer and former deputy prime minister accuses Theresa May of having “flip-flopped” on the “intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership”.

The Conservative party is deeply divided on the subject of Europe, and I don't see a short-term resolution to that position. I just reread the speech that the Prime Minister made to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers before the referendum. It was thoughtful, careful, balanced, and highly persuasive – arguing that we should remain in Europe.

A few weeks later, Brexit is Brexit. She has apparently changed her mind, and people like me have not. The idea that the intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership on this subject can be flip-flopped is asking too much of those of us who believe that our self-interest as a nation is inextricably interwoven with our European allies.

I believe that this is the worst peacetime decision that Parliament has been asked to make. It is very possible, as the negotiations unfold, that members of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons who believe as strongly as I do in the Remain argument will feel that their commitment to our national self-interest is being stretched unacceptably.

I know all the lonelinesses of their position. I'm well aware of the herd instinct of party politics. Only on two significant occasions have I worked to change the official policies of the Conservative party. I have no regrets, it didn't actually do me any harm. They have to evaluate the nature of the decision they're being asked to take.

I don't believe any of the arguments that there's a two-year time scale, the guillotine comes down. If there's a will to change within the community of European leaders, change will happen regardless of the letter of the law.

I believe that there needs to be a second referendum or a mandate of a general election. I believe the sovereignty of this country is enshrined in the House of Commons, and that they must be involved in the final decision with absolute power to determine the outcome. It took Nicola Sturgeon a matter of months to be back on the trail of a second referendum and Nigel Farage would have been doing exactly the same if he had lost. So what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I cast myself in the unlikely role of gander.

[May’s opposition to a Scottish referendum] completely undermines the whole basis for supporting the referendum judgement in the first place, because they weren't in possession of the facts, and so when we are in possession of the facts, it follows there must be a second choice.

Michael Heseltine is a Conservative peer and a former deputy prime minister.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition