We have in the news today another terrible workplace accident occurring in a garment factory in Bangladesh. Eight dead in a fire in a sweater factory, to go with the 900-950 who died two weeks ago. That on top of last year’s tragedy.
Industrial tragedies in a far-off country and in a sector in which we no longer look to compete might seem like an irrelevance to us but, in my opinion these are the most pertinent news and political stories of the last two weeks.
The reason for my claim is that these tragedies point to a fundamental tension at the core of our globalised world economy. On the one hand developing countries, and workers in developing countries are prepared to take employment with appalling pay and conditions because it will potentially improve their material conditions. On the other, in a globalised economy there are always populations which can be exploited to the extent that any basics tenets of decency in the workplace are dispensed with. Thus our global system has the potential both to allow individuals and populations to progress materially and, at the same time, to cause dramatic declines in the pay and conditions. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that this trend is, or at least always will be, limited to clothing manufacture.
I readily admit that I don’t know how this can be addressed. Those of a particularly ruthless form of economic thinking will doubtless say that this is the way that economies work and there is nothing to be done. My problem with that approach is twofold: firstly, I find it difficult to accept from a human or moral standpoint that we cannot devise a situation where people can expect that at the end of a day’s work they might get a living wage and have a fair chance of making it home alive; secondly, I disagree that the trajectory is necessarily positive. Our more ardent free-marketers would have us believe that once their preferred system of global trade reaches perfection the laws of comparative advantage will mean that everyone will be better off. History however shows us that the advantages secured by globalisation, particularly in manufacturing, are those of depressed wages and working conditions garnered through the fundamentally predatory nature of capitalism.
My point in a nutshell is this: what happens in terms of wages and conditions for textile workers now is a foretaste of what people in other industries can expect in the future, unless you’re a protected professional, politician or civil servant.
My question therefore is how should people, in this case, in Ireland respond to these tragedies? I’m asking because I genuinely don’t even know my own mind on this. It seems to me that neither free-trade nor tariffs provide the answer that their supporters would suggest, but it’s not clear what else does.
For what it’s worth I also think that, for both right and left, there are core ideological positions which prevent possible practical approaches to dealing with this issue. The left, particularly the trade union movement should be taking leadership on this, but they are more concerned with local conditions and haven’t managed to make a fundamental leap in understanding that not all employers are the same: there are some whose practices are good and worth supporting and there are others whose are poor and worth vilifying. Those on the right also need to distinguish between sorts of rights and workers organising that may be problematic in an Irish or western environment (e.g. getting a half-hour off to cash your cheque) and those needed in the developing world (e.g. having some basic health and safety standards).
In any case, I welcome your opinions.