An Incomplete Debate

 (Asim Rafiqui)There is something exciting, and something disappointing in the many discussions provoked by the recent factory fire that engulfed the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Today, for example, the New York Times invited a group of individuals involved with trade and labor rights to weigh on the matter with an online special in their Room for Debate series called The Human Cost of Cheap Clothing.

It is exciting to read and hear a range of voices, both from inside Bangladesh, and outside, speaking out in outrage and demanding changes to domestic laws, international trade practices and corporate supplier monitoring and selection rules. The discussions are important, and one always hopes that they provoke a continous attention to the question of globalization and its real, lived consequences for the poor. At the same time, it is disappointing however because they lack new thinking and tend to dance around the same arguments we have heard before and which have never quite moved governments, retailers and consumer to change their preferences and patterns.

In the end, perhaps my greatest disappointment remains with my own society which just simply ‘moved on’ in the wake of the Ali Enterprises garment factory fire, resigning itself to the hopelessness and helplessness that seems to mark so much of daily life here. I say this not to compare tragedies – these tragedies are a shared human sorrow and stem from much the same human history, but to voice disappointment at the way Pakistan, Pakistani society, and Pakistani attitudes seem to have quickly relegated the Ali Enterprises disaster to the annuls of yet another one of ‘God’s will’ and simply moved on. This is in sharp contrast to the more engaged, more critical and more demanding protests that have occurred in Bangladesh.

For example, it was only in Bangladesh that activists and citizens, including middle-class women, made a direct connection with the neo-liberal, consumerist policies of the state of Bangladesh, and the conditions of exploitation that garment factory workers actually work. In a letter to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers And Exporters Association (BGMEA), a letter that openly accused this government body of being complicit in the murder and exploitation of Bangladesh’s garment factory fire victims, Rokeya Bahini, an activist, argued that:

…The emergence of the garment sector in Bangladesh was accompanied by the rise of the fashion industry. The adoption of the privatisation policies of the World Bank and the IMF has led to the rapid expansion of the entertainment and advertising industries, of beauty parlors and boutiques. The activities and initiatives undertaken by apparently disparate organisations in actuality meld and create the dreams and aspirations of most middle class women today. They make us forget that the dreams peddled to women of being “beautiful” and “smart” are class-ed ones. They make us forget that the market economy sows only the value of “competition”, nothing else. Far worse, their collaborative activities have created a world of luxury and consumption which prevents us from hearing the cries of our sisters working in the garment industry. Many women who are older to us, who should have been our role models, totally ignore the issue of class inequality; …80% of workers at Tazreen were women, but the former haven’t used what occurred at Tazreen to counter the government, the BGMEA and global capital’s rhetoric of “female empowerment.” They too, would like us to believe that class inequality is irrelevant.

This was a rare attempt at talking about connections between the structure and basis of the garment industry, and the broader injustices in society – class divisions, gender pay discrimination, and dis-investment in social programs that enable these industries and the uses the labor is put to. It was a rare attempt to bring attention to the tragedy of labor exploitation, and that poor working conditions cannot be separated from the broader indifference that the government, the bureaucracy and the capitalist elite have towards Bangladeshi society and citizenry.

In fact, BGMEA Vice President Faruque Hassan, revealed this indifference to issues of equality, justice and human concern when he bragged to Al-Jazeera that:

“We are not competitive in any product, only in garments. We don’t even produce the cotton and the petrochemicals the garments industry need, we have no basic raw materials. We have been trying to enter the South American market for years, but we don’t even have an embassy in the entire continent. Only last month, after years of pressure from us, the government opened an embassy in Brazil. And with all these drawbacks we have managed to become the second-largest exporter in the world.”

If you read between the lines, you discover how Bangladesh has achieved this vaunted place, and why garment exports accounts for nearly 80% of the country’s exports: cheap labor. It is in fact the only competitive advantage Bangladesh has, and it is an advantage it must continue to harvest and support if it is to hold on to its revenue stream. That is, since the nation has failed to develop any meaningful position of influence in the global value-chain of the garments industry, and attracts business to it on the promise of cheap and unproblematic (read: non-unionized) labor, the government, the policy makers, the bureaucrats, the investors, and the industrialists have absolutely no interest nor any incentive for improving the lives and working conditions of the garment factory workers or the broader mass of citizens that in fact are the crucial labor pool that fuels this industry. That is, it serves a powerful coterie of Bangladeshi society to have a vast pool of replaceable, indistinguishable, desperate and weak citizens because they are the cheap labor backbone of a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

In fact, the same Al-Jazeera piece said it clearly:

In Bangladesh, the industry boasts a workforce of 3.6 million – larger than the entire workforce of Cambodia. In the eyes of global brands such as H&M and Nike, the low wages and the capacity of its labour force give Bangladesh its edge.

It is naive to believe that a nation – as represented by bureaucrats, politicians, industrialist and investors, will not invest heavily in maintaining and growing its only competitive advantage. It is inevitable that a certain segment of Bangladeshi society, the ones that profit from the revenues generated by this industry, will make sure that a large, exploitable labor pool is made available since it is the crucial fuel for their earnings. They will be discouraged from pursuing any policies that result in a reduction of this labor pool, give it greater opportunities for a better life, allow it benefits and protections that will increase wages and benefits. Furthermore, they will de-invest in any other industry with the goal of creating a vast, cheap labor pool since it’s the only competitive advantage they have.

This fact – that nations invest in creating cheap labor, and hence dis-invest in alternatives that would cut this pool, is something largely lost on the pro-globalization advocates of the world. This was best summed by Daniel Ikenson, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, argument :

Obviously, the conditions in these factories in developing countries do not appeal to the sensibilities of wealthy nations. But the proper comparison is between the alternatives that would exist in poor countries in the absence of Western investment. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has argued that factory work offers a step up the ladder for billions of impoverished people around the world. His stories about the subsistence options confronting Cambodian women before the arrival of apparel factories — picking through garbage dumps, back breaking agricultural work and prostitution — remind us to not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

There is an insidious bigotry embedded in statements such as this. Of course, The New York Time’s Nicholas Kristof’s bigotry has been well described in Teju Cole’s wonderful piece called The White Savior Industrial Complex , so it was with some amusement that I read Mr Ikensen referring to him. But embedded in these statements is the very same idea of a ‘white man’s burden’ and the saving grace of global industry. The fact that there is no ‘step up the ladder’ to anywhere is carefully avoided – it is a truism that needs no facts but merely repetition.

But perhaps most insidiously, what it hides is the fact that globalization privileges the elite of a nation that can quickly tie itself into revenues streams of foreign investment and revenues, while willfully ignoring the real work of government – investing, developing, protecting the welfare of its citizenry. The attraction of easy money in the form of foreign direct investment in industries that link the nations raw resources – natural and human, to the consumer markets of Europe becomes too hard to resist. It distracts from the harder, longer-term work of imagination and vision required to invest in the society, and protects citizen rights, and enable them with services and benefits that help create lives of dignity.

The false dichotomy offered to us here – garment factories or prostitution, erases the entire nexus of usurped government, and private interests that simply act as ‘labor contractors’ to powerful international corporate interests. The money that could be invested in creating meaningful alternatives is then simply siphoned off into private pockets. What the likes of Kristof and Ikenson fail to understand is that picking through garbage, prostitution, back-breaking subsistence agriculture is a result of lop-sided investments in garment factories and creation of a cheap labor pool. It is the outcome of a government and of policies that ignore the society, dis-invest in the citizenry, and disconnects itself from its welfare. They are not alternatives, they are complements.

The same network of interests reflects the conditions and realities of the garment industry in Pakistan. Though it was disappointing to see that few made the broader arguments for a need for societal and social structural changes in the wake of the Ali Enterprises tragedy. The government, including provincial governments, local charities and private do-gooder were quick to arrive with compensation funds, as if reparation and compensation were the principal issues at stake. None of these institutions or people dare raise a question about the structural conditions that create a pool of exploitable labor, and that sustain the very existence of the garment factories in the first place.

Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist and professor at Columbia University (and who taught me undergraduate level accounting!), also gets it partially wrong when he argues that:

The Bangladesh fires emphasize again a lax and lackadaisical attitude to the issue of workplace safety by the Bangladeshi authorities, possibly aided and abetted by domestic politics. This reflects a general attitude of neglect in protecting workers against unsafe conditions, like providing goggles and ensuring that they are worn when workers operate close to an open furnace. But asking Wal-Mart, Gap and other brands to substitute for the somnolent government will only marginally address worker safety reform.

Professor Bhagwati posits these two situations – the government’s lackadaisical neglect and the role of retailers, as two unrelated realities. But when a retailer searches the markets of the world looking for cheap labor, and makes it clear to governments that its only decision-making and selection criteria is low costs, the government too has an incentive to pursue cost cutting measures and practices. Safety regulations, monitoring and enforcement costs money, and is extremely expensive because it demands organizations, professionals, training, equipment, prosecution, upgrades and much more. Enforcing safety regulations makes uncompetitive i.e it forces the government to pass the costs on to retailers, who in most likelihood would quickly move on to a cheaper nation.

In fact, this was precisely what happened as reported in The Nation. In a piece titled Documents Undermine Walmart Account On Deadly Factory Fire, (thanks to Professor C.M. Naim) reported Josh Eidelson pointed out that:

Bloomberg News reported an April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, at which major retail corporations considered a proposed agreement under which they would pay more so that their suppliers could make safety improvements. Ineke Zeldenrust of the Amsterdam-based NGO Clean Clothes Campaign told Bloomberg that Walmart’s director of ethical sourcing, Sridevi Kalavakolanu, said at the meeting that Walmart would not agree to pay the higher cost.

Bloomberg reporters Renee Dudley and Arun Devnath also revealed a document written by Kalavakolanu and a Gap official, which was included in the meeting’s minutes, which stated, “Specifically to the issue of any corrections on electrical and fire safety, we are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken to some factories. It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.

“No company,” Nova told The Nation, “that is unwilling to pay [factories] enough to make it possible for them to operate safely can claim to be interested in any way in the rights or safety of workers.”

There are connections that we have to start to make that show a greater truth. Bhagwati, and other single-minded pro-globalization advocates, ignore the human, ethnical and justice dimensions of international trade. They erase and ignore voices that are not anti-globalization, but are in fact arguing for their own nations to adopt economic policies that balance the benefits of international investments and the welfare and future of its citizenry and their welfare.

In industries where the value chains cross political and government borders, it is naive to simply focus on only one element in the chain, while absolving the rest. One could in fact argue that in such cross-national value chains we have to very carefully and precisely understand where the stress must lie. We have to acknowledge power differentials that exists across the many elements in the chain. Not all players have equal influence on how the chain works, how it determines prices and profits, and how it compels certain labor practices.

A piece in The Hindu, titled Knowing Your Onions In New York, writer P. Sainath meets an onion farmer who explains:

“My onions are big, aren’t they?” Chris Pawelski asked our group of visitors at his farm 60 miles from New York City. “Any idea why?”

Because of consumer demand, we wondered? Perhaps bigger bulbs caught the customer’s eye better? “Nope,” said Pawelski, a fourth-generation farmer whose family arrived from Poland in 1903 and has worked this land for over a century. “The size is set by the retail chain stores. They dictate almost everything.”

The statement they dictate almost everything helps us begin to understand where responsibility and accountability has to life. The knee-jerk apologists for international trade – euphemistically called globalization (as if the world became global only when McDonald’s learned to make burgers – see Sugata Bose’s A Hundred Horizons or Janet L Abu Lughod’s Before European Hegemony for corrective to this ridiculous Eurocentric cliches) work hard to avoid these inter-connections, and to protect corporate perspectives. Usurped by the language and presumptions of corporate power and influence, they regurgitate tired arguments that ignored the lived realities of the societies they claim to speak for.

In a global industry, with a cross-national value chain where sourcing, manufacturing, delivering, marketing, distribution, sales move across multiple human, institutional and geographic frontiers, there can never only one entity or person responsible for injustices produced and excused. However, different players along the value chain have different power positions, some with greater influence over the workings of the value chain than others. And in the garment industry, it is the retailers who dictate everything and as Iris Marion Young would argue, hold the greater burden of accountability and change. But it is precisely these retailers that are always absolved of their role, their influence and even their specific priorities that drive costs to the very bottom.

What is also missing in these debates is seeing these questions – of trade, of labor rights, of regulation enforcement, as matters of justice. All the advocates for trade and retailers speak in economic, investment, profit and business terms. All the opposing voices speak about labor rights and fire regulation enforcement. None speaks of it as a question of human justice, about equality of rights and consideration, about the morality of the practices that underpin international trade practices. And by not speaking about these as matters of justice, we do not speak about them as matters for which someone – a government organization and individuals, must be held accountable, under threat of criminal prosecution and penalization.

Iris Marion Young work Responsibility For Justice offers a way to think about globally inter-connected value chains by looking at the various agents that operate along it and evaluating them for their Power, Privilege, Interest and Collective Ability. Using these parameters of reasoning Iris Young argues that:

…different agents…have different kinds and degrees of forward-looking responsibility for justice. Such difference…derive in large measure from their social positions agents occupy in relation to one another within the structural process [value chain] they are trying to change in order to make them less unjust.

I will speak more about Young’s formulations in a later post.

The online debate arranged by the New York Times reflects the same ignorance, or unwillingness, to face the broader conditions of life in the countries that act as our clothes makers. I suspect that a lot of this has to do with simple ignorance: people just don’t know better, and are unaware of how to really understand the nature of global trade arrangements, and the history of ‘export oriented’ trade in post-colonial nations. There are legacies of colonial history which show how agricultural and production practices were modified to serve the urban capitals of Europe. They also show how post-colonial leaders and bureaucrats, trained to serve the interests of Empire, continued these practices into the modern era for a lack of a better idea, or imagination. These legacies and lineages are of course missing from all the debates about factory fires and labor exploitation.

A vivid example of this was the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, re-establishment of slave plantations to serve the French market in the immediate aftermath of Haiti’s independence, a legacy whose consequences continue to scar Haiti’s modernity and the thinking of its cannibalistic elite. (see C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins and Lurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World). A similar argument is made for both India and Pakistan, two nations that may not have colonies, but have continued to act as colonizers within their own borders, extracting raw resources, and ‘manufacturing’ cheap labor to serve and benefit foreign markets and investors. Our imaginations know no better. But I digress.

The New York Times online debate, and the debaters, are trapped in an old form of discussion that does nothing to move the situation in a new direction. On one side are those who argue about the ‘charitable’ benefits of global trade – a truism belied by the fact that those who work in this industries seem to reap few benefits, while a small coterie of government and private elite, skim off most, and on the other the labor right arguments that suggest that it is merely a matter of ‘enforcement’ and adherence to laws and regulations. I simplify this to some degree, but I think my point is clear i.e the debate refuses to go beyond the obvious positions, and never challenges the very structures and willed arrangements that make this trade possible and attractive in the first place.

There are dependencies and power hierarchies in any global industry value chain, and it is impossible to separate the profits earned on one end from the exploitation inflicted on the other. Looking at the agents and their power, as Iris Young suggests, is a new starting point. But this is perhaps the easier challenge. The greater challenge however is for us – the citizens of these ‘labor pool’ nations, to understand the history, and social arrangements that have reduced us to being merely lowly labor in the service of other people’s fantasies and desires. It is up to us to go past the reductive, stultified discussions ‘they’ have about ‘our’ lives, and the ‘benefits’ their dreams give to our otherwise crippled existence, and to begin to ask the larger, more dangerous questions that help us create ideas for the kind of just, fair society we wish, what risks we will have to take, and the sacrifices we will have to make.

Many of these questions will emerge in the course of my work Justice In Pakistan.