Murder by another name

by John Jacobsen

Pictured above: business and economics correspondent for Slate, Mathew Yglesias, standing under what appears to be a fire alarm.

A response to Matthew Yglesias‘ musings on Bangladesh, outsourcing, and the murder of 359 garment workers.

“Where’s my mother? Where’s my mother?” cried Rana Ahmed as she rushed through Enam Medical College and Hospital.

Mosammat Khurshida wailed as she looked for her husband. “He came to work in the morning. I can’t find him,” she said. “I don’t know where he is. He does not pick up his phone.

An arm jutted out of one section of the rubble. The lifeless body of a woman covered in dust could be seen in another.

Only 4 months after a factory fire in Dhaka killed 112 workers, another 362 have died in the collapse of a garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh; and in a compassionately timed piece put out by Slate this week, business correspondent Mathew Yglesias explained to us why “it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.”

“The reason,” of course, “is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good.”

According to Yglesias, ”[Jobs] that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work.”

So in the U.S. fishing industry, for example, the mean hourly wage of $17.98 is apparently the trade off for potentially being crushed to death by a crab pot, thrown into the sub-zero ocean in the dead of night, or being impaled on a hook as its being cast out to sea.

In Bangladesh, on the other hand, the average garment worker earns around $63 every month. But, reasons Yglesias, “Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States,” so “there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different [saftey] choices” than American workers.

His conclusion? The safety rules we have in the United States (where thousands of workers still die in accidents every year) would “unnecessarily immiserate” the much poorer Bangladesh.

Costly and unreasonable safety standards – like not having to enter a factory with massive cracks running through its foundation – would raise the costs of doing business in their countries, and foreign investors such as The Children’s Place, Dress Barn, and Primark (whom at one point had all produced clothes in the now collapsed factory) would be forced to move their business elsewhere. Bangladeshi garment workers would be inconsolable.

But there might be a bit of a snag in his argument.

According to him, the “current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine… Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.”

ScreenHunter_74 Sep. 01 20.01

GDP growth, however, is no indication of individual or even widespread enrichment. That wealth is being generated says nothing of who it is being given to.

And as it turns out, we don’t have to travel half way around the globe to see that.

In the U.S., wages have lagged far behind GDP growth for decades, as this data from the U.S. census bureau demonstrates:


Likewise in Bangladesh.

Despite praise of the country’s continued GDP growth, gains for workers – where there have been any – have largely been offset by rising prices, particularly of food.

Moreover, though the country’s economy has grown significantly since the 1990′s, the share of the wealth being generated has largely been accrued by the wealthy, while the poorest have actually lost their once higher shares.

According to this study put out by economists from the World Bank and the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, where in 1992 the lowest 10% of income earners in the country shared 2.58% of the country’s total household income, by 2005 they were down to 2%.

The top 10%, however, had moved from 29.23% to 37.64%.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing “appropriate” about the safety standards in Bangladesh. It is not offset by rising wages (actually or theoretically), and hundreds of dead workers does not translate to “a system that is working just fine.”

The bottom line of the tragedies in Bangladeshi garment factories is that forcing your workers to enter a factory known to be unsafe is still murder, no matter how authors like Mathew Yglesias try to justify it.

Even assuming a real growth in wages that miraculously and inexplicably raised the standard of living for Bangladeshi workers to the same level as their counterparts in the U.S., going to work shouldn’t have to be a death sentence.


John Jacobsen is a labor organizer and welder in Seattle, Washington.  He currently writes for the Seattle Free Press, where this post originally appeared. [The estimate of deaths in this tragedy has been updated from the SFP version–Talking  Union]


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