Bangladesh factory collapse kills more than 1,000 people

Recently a factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people.

The building that the factory was in was never designed to accommodate the huge weight of a factory. The Telegraph reports:

Bangladesh: Rana Plaza architect says building was never meant for factories

The architect of the eight storey building that collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 500 (later updated to more than 1,000) people, has spoken out for the first time, telling The Daily Telegraph it was planned for shops and offices – but not factories.

Four factories were installed at Rana Plaza regardless – one of which supplied Primark and Bonmarche, the British clothing retailers – and two unplanned storeys were also added, helping to precipitate its collapse.

Massood Reza, the architect who drew up the plan for Rana Plaza in 2004, said he was “asked to design a commercial shopping mall” with “three or four storeys for a market and then the upper two storeys were for offices”.

He said: “We did not design it for industrial use. At that time the garment belt was not there. There was no demand for industrial buildings. If I had known that it was to be an industrial building, as per the rules I would have taken other measures for the building.”

Other architects stressed the risks involved in placing factories inside a building designed only for shops and offices. The structure may not be strong enough to bear the weight and vibration of heavy machinery.

The government’s official investigation on Friday suggested that generators placed on the roof to power the factories – along with the vibration of sewing machines used to make garments – all combined to trigger the building’s collapse.

The original plan for Rana Plaza, seen by The Daily Telegraph, duly describes the building’s purpose as “com” for “commercial”, not industrial.

So that’s the real problem. I certainly hope that the scumbags who made this horrible decision – to locate a factory in a building that was not designed to support such heavy weight – are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I also hope that they and their insurance companies are required to offer financial compensation to the families of the victims.

But we should not use this tragic incident as a reason to oppose all low-wage factories in Bangladesh.

The problem isn’t that Bangladesh has low-wage factories now. The problem is that it didn’t have low-wage factories 150 years ago. Every country starts out poor. Every country starts out with dangerous, low paying, crappy jobs. The only difference between Bangladesh and the U.S. in this kind of thing is that Bangladesh started it a lot later than the U.S. did.

I trust people to choose the job that is best for them. The people who work in Bangladesh’s many low-wage factories do so because, in their opinion, their alternatives are even worse. As time goes on, and as the country becomes more economically and technologically developed, things will get better.

This article from the Economist shows how the people of Bangladesh are far better off now that they have so many factories. According to the article, in the past 20 years, the following things have happened in Bangladesh:

* Life expectancy has increased by 10 years.

* Adjusted for inflation, per capita income has increased from $540 to $1,909.

* Infant deaths per 1,000 live births have fallen from 97 to 37.

* Deaths of children under 5, per 1,000 live births, have fallen from from 139 to 46.

* Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births have fallen from 800 to 194.

These statistics show tremendous, huge, very substantial improvements for the people of Bangladesh over the last 20 years. This shows that Bangladesh has been doing extraordinarily well as its workers have switched from the farms to the factories. I hope that all of these trends continue, and that the people of Bangladesh eventually achieve a first world standard of living.

By contrast, here is what happened in the past when people in rich countries tried to “protect” people in poor countries from those kinds of low-wage factory jobs:

In the early 1990s, the United States Congress considered the ‘Child Labor Deterrence Act,’ which would have taken punitive action against companies benefiting from child labor. The Act never passed, but the public debate it triggered put enormous pressure on a number of multinational corporations with assets in the U.S. One German garment maker laid off 50,000 child workers in Bangladesh. The British charity organization Oxfam later conducted a study that found that thousands of those laid-off children later became prostitutes, turned to crime, or starved to death.

The United Nations organization UNICEF reports that an international boycott of the Nepalese carpet industry in the mid-1990s caused several plants to shut down; thousands of Nepalese girls later entered the sex trade.

In 1995, a consortium of anti-sweatshop groups threw the spotlight on football (soccer) stitching plants in Pakistan. In response, Nike and Reebok shut down their plants in Pakistan, and several other companies followed suit. The result: tens of thousands of unemployed Pakistanis. Mean income in Pakistan fell by 20%. According to University of Colorado economist Keith E. Maskus, studies later showed a large proportion of those laid off ended up in crime, begging, or working as prostitutes.

That’s really horrible.

People in poor countries such as Bangladesh work in factories of their own free will, because in their opinion, it gives them a better standard of living than what they had previously had while working on their subsistence, low production farms. By working in these factories, the people of Bangladesh are climbing on the exact same ladder of upward mobility that the people of today’s rich countries had done in the past. We should not try to deny these poor countries the same opportunities that today’s rich countries have had.

The best thing that we can do to help the people of Bangladesh is to continue buying the stuff that they make in their factories.

So, let’s say that Bangladesh – and all poor countries for that matter – eventually reach a first world standard of living. Then who will perform the low-wage, low-skill jobs? The answer is machines. Clothing used to be washed by low-skill, low paid workers – but that job has been replaced by washing machines. Books used to copied by hand by low-skill, low paid workers – but now that task is carried out by printing presses. Eventually, all low-skill, low-wage jobs can be performed by machines, such as Baxter the Robot. CNBC reports:

If you meet Baxter, the latest humanoid robot from Rethink Robotics – you should get comfortable with him, because you’ll likely be seeing more of him soon.

Rethink Robotics released Baxter last fall and received an overwhelming response from the manufacturing industry, selling out of their production capacity through April. He’s cheap to buy ($22,000), easy to train, and can safely work side-by-side with humans. He’s just what factories need to make their assembly lines more efficient – and yes, to replace costly human workers.

Here’s a video of Baxter:

I want every person on earth to have a first world standard of living – to have access to supermarkets, electricity, light bulbs, telephones, computers, washing machines, indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water, flush toilets, books, CDs, DVDs, quality education, modern health care, and a heated home with a roof that doesn’t leak. There’s no reason why all low-skill factory work can’t eventually be done by machines. But no country starts out that way. It takes time for a poor country to become rich. And we should not try to stop the people of Bangladesh from doing the things that they need to do in order to become rich.

I am interested in how things are in the real word. In the real world, people in poor countries often have to choose between subsistence farming, working in horrible factories, working as prostitutes, or starving to death. This is reality.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote:

“We examined the apparel industry in 10 Asian and Latin American countries often accused of having sweatshops and then we looked at 43 specific accusations of unfair wages in 11 countries in the same regions. Our findings may seem surprising. Not only were sweatshops superior to the dire alternatives economists usually mentioned, but they often provided a better-than-average standard of living for their workers.”

“The apparel industry, which is often accused of unsafe working conditions and poor wages, actually pays its foreign workers well enough for them to rise above the poverty in their countries. While more than half of the population in most of the countries we studied lived on less than $2 per day, in 90 percent of the countries, working a 10-hour day in the apparel industry would lift a worker above – often far above – that standard. For example, in Honduras, the site of the infamous Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal, the average apparel worker earns $13.10 per day, yet 44 percent of the country’s population lives on less than $2 per day.”

“In 9 of the 11 countries we surveyed, the average reported sweatshop wages equaled or exceeded average incomes and in some cases by a large margin. In Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras, the average wage paid by a firm accused of being a sweatshop is more than double the average income in that country’s economy.”

Writing for the New York Times, Nicolas D. Kristof wrote:

“Africa desperately needs Western help in the form of… sweatshops.”

“… the poor themselves tend to see sweatshops as opportunities.”

“… sewing clothes is considerably less dangerous or arduous — or sweaty — than most alternatives in poor countries.”

“… anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.”

Writing about the appearance of sweatshops in poor countries, Paul Krugman wrote:

“… wherever the new export industries have grown, there has been measurable improvement in the lives of ordinary people.”

Jeffrey D. Sachs said of poor countries:

“My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops but that there are too few.”

Johan Norberg said of a Nike factory in Vietnam:

“But when I talk to a young Vietnamese woman, Tsi-Chi, at the factory, it is not the wages she is most happy about. Sure, she makes five times more than she did, she earns more than her husband, and she can now afford to build an extension to her house. But the most important thing, she says, is that she doesn’t have to work outdoors on a farm any more… 10 to 14 hours a day in the burning sun or the intensive rain, in rice fields with water up to your ankles and insects in your face… The most persistent demand Nike hears from the workers is for an expansion of the factories so that their relatives can be offered a job as well.

Some people have claimed that the Foxconn factory in China has a “suicide problem.” However, according to ABC News, the suicide rate at the Foxconn factory is actually lower than China’s overall suicide rate.

It’s a terrible tragedy that more than 1,000 people died in the Bangladesh factory collapse. But it would be a far worse tragedy if millions of Bangladesh factory workers were forced to give up their factory jobs, and resort to worse things such as subsistence farming, prostitution, and starvation.

May 10, 2013. Tags: , , , , , , . Politics, Sweatshops.

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