US retailers such as Gap have declined to back an accord on Bangladesh building and fire safety backed by Sweden’s Hennes & Mauritz and Spain’s Inditex, which owns Zara.
This follows two recent tragedies in the country, a factory collapse saw the death of over 1,100 while a fire in November killed 112 people. However, Chris Dillow notes that because of the way in which the media reports tragedy, dramatic events as this tend to be exaggerated. The rate of child mortality is equivalent to two Rana Plaza collapses every week, yet this goes largely unreported.
You cannot understand why so many Bangladeshis tolerate working in sweatshops until you realize that doing so gives their children not just a better chance in life, but a better chance of life. Thanks in part to the economic development brough by those sweatshops, child mortality in Bangladesh has fallen.
However, news reports which draw attention to the evils of sweatshops but not to those of rural poverty understate the benefits which such sweatshops have brought. Yes, they're hellholes which perhaps could and should be improved upon – but they're better than the alternative.
We've discussed the 1997 UNICEF State of the World study on the blog before, which showed that rules limiting child labour saw the intended beneficiaries suffer:
The consequences for the dismissed children and their parents were not anticipated. The children may have been freed, but at the same time they were trapped in a harsh environment with no skills, little or no education, and precious few alternatives. Schools were either inaccessible, useless or costly. A series of follow-up visits by UNICEF, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) discovered that children went looking for new sources of income, and found them in work such as stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution — all of them more hazardous and exploitative than garment production. In several cases, the mothers of dismissed children had to leave their jobs in order to look after their children.
So perhaps retailers are right to be wary of these new rules. It's hard to say without knowing the full details, but generally people work in sweatshops because they provide a better standard of life for those workers. Making it harder to employ people in Bangladesh is unlikely to do workers any favours.