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.

Photo: Getty
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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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