A building full of sweatshops collapsed in Bangladesh a few days ago, killing hundreds. The factory owners were told by authorities to evacuate when cracks appeared in the building the day before the collapse, but ordered their workers to return the following day. It might be hard to muster empathy for yet another disaster in Bangladesh. After suffering so many floods, massacres, typhoons, famines, political instability and even arsenic-tainted drinking water, it does seem an unlucky place. But they are people just like you and me. In fact they are nicer people than I’ve met just about anywhere else in this world, it’s the kind of place that people would offer you the shirt off their back if they thought you needed it. In fact they do give us the shirts on our backs, almost for free! The labor cost for sewing our shirts (that sell for anything from $10 to $500) is about 25 cents. A doubling of wages would add a whopping twenty-five extra cents to the retail price.
Of course locals are angry, protesters and riot police negotiate the streets of Dhaka. It remind me of the least-reported and most interesting story in recent history, the revolt of the slaves at the new tower of Babylon. It’s hard not to cheer when people throw down their tools and demand a tiny fraction of the wealth that they create. The collapse of the building could be watershed event like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in NY a hundred years ago, catalyzing a new era of worker’s rights in Bangladesh. But the world is different now. If workers there win even a fraction of the labor rights that Americans won after similar disasters in the early 20th century, these corporations will just move their production to China or Indonesia.
Opportunistic resource looting and nasty labor exploitation aren’t exceptions but the very bread & butter of doing business in the modern era, practices by every company from Apple to Zara. This is the very problem championed by the anti/alter-globalization movement, whose demands for international justice were abruptly sideswiped by the 21st-century crusades, and remain deferred by a financial meltdown and the impossible-to-ignore urgency of climate change.
We must either hamstring corporate power and chain capital to single territories (a pipe dream) or create a supra-national enforcement system for labor and environmental laws (terrifying). Since neither is very likely, maybe the best model for survival-with-integrity in a predatory globalized world is the rogue state option, like the fictional future-Thailand in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.