The conundrum presented by the Bangladeshi building collapse

By now you probably realize that there is a company in China with a factory where most of the electronics in the world are manufactured. If you own an HP, Dell, Apple, or Sony desktop or laptop; if you own an iPhone or Android phone or Blackberry; or if you own a sound system, it was probably made in the Chinese FoxConn factory. Working conditions there are poor. 

However, FoxConn is a heavenly paradise by comparison with some garment manufacturing facilities in Third World countries. A recent 9-story building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh has resulted in a death toll of 400 and still counting. Apparently, several different garment contractors used the building to run sweatshops. 

The owner of the building was caught fleeing Bangladesh to India (which likely would have handed him back to Bangladesh anyway, had he been caught there). 

Now, the finger-pointing begins. 

To be sure, the building owner will get a lot of blame for operating a building that was, well, collapsible. But how much did he know? Was the construction company at fault for not following architect plans to the letter, or were their raw materials suppliers at fault for delivering substandard building materials. What about the architects?: did they cut corners in design to keep costs down (and in a poor country like Bangladesh, costs are always a consideration)?

Then, going in the other direction, how much blame should be laid on the doorstep of companies like Walmart, Sears, Target and others who, even if their products weren't manufactured in this specific building, contract to have products manufactured in similarly unsafe circumstances?

Do American companies have a responsibility to workers working under contract in other countries? or is this the business of the people and governments there?

Tags: Bangladesh, building, collapse

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I was coming to that. 

Sorry if I eclipsed you (though you should be used to it by now), but I just didn't have all day for you to get your wit together.

I don't want to use up all my material at once.

So we can expect single-sentence comments, followed by, "To be continued --"?

Do American companies have a responsibility to workers working under contract in other countries? or is this the business of the people and governments there?

Both. The company I work for manufactures items (apparel, packs, etc.) overseas. Our contracts with factories stipulate certain obligations to ethical practices. This includes things like employees being paid in full and on time, wages, and health and safety issues, amongst other things. Our minimum standard need not be as low as any individual government's. We have people audit these factories periodically to ensure they are keeping with standards.

Does it work? Somewhat. There are still some violations which we are supposed to publish in our accountability reports. This is true even for Canadian factories we contract out to. I don't know all the ins and outs, but where violations and ethical practices are concerned, we do our best to work with factories productively. We have had to end contracts in the past. Sadly that fixes little for the employees in those factories, but overall companies can use the the promise of business to push for higher standards. Hopefully employees will be increasingly empowered and push for greater change from within for countries with low standards.

Consumers are more limited in their options in some ways, but as a broad generalization, we can pressure companies into better habits and vote with our dollars to some extent.

Sadly, in this instance, having money also means having power. Companies and individuals who are just scraping by aren't likely going to be the major impetus for change.

Well, having money means having power in a lot of instances.

Corporate officers also have a legal obligation to maximize the profitability of their operations. Within the law, of course.

The have fiduciary duties. That's not quite the same thing.

What makes you think that operating within the law is a priority for corporate officers.  Not getting caught is the priority.

RE: "it is often impossible to know which company produced what products, because they often go through several hands before reaching the American companies."

Then shouldn't they make full disclosure, regarding those hands, a part of their manufacturing agreement?

Lay the blame entirely on those who prefer to purchase their inexpensive items.

Recently, I bought a Squier Stratocaster guitar made in Indonesia (Squier is the budget guitar division of Fender). I have no way of knowing what the conditions are in the factory there, but I can say that the product shows every sign of being manufactured with pride. I paid $300 for it. An equivalent American-made Fender Stratocaster runs about $2000 or more and is really not so much better that it's worth the additional $1700. You'd have a hard time telling them apart except for the logo on the headstock.

I could maybe start saving my nickles and dimes and buy an American-made, but in so doing I'm not doing the poor Indonesian workers any favors. They are feeding their families by making guitars. If the Fender guitar company could make a guitar here for $600, I'd consider it, but not $2000. I don't think most of the $1700 difference is accounted for by the wages of the American workers. I think a lot of it is gouging by Fender who appeal to misplaced patriotism and convert it into piles of cash.

Lay some of the blame back on the American capitalists.

Perhaps, though "made in America" usually means "from parts manufactured wherever, probably Asia," and I can't imagine that with many of the parts pre-made and merely ready for assembly, very many American man-hours go into the cost of a guitar. 

Also, at least an imported guitar brings some bucks into the U.S. economy and helps some American workers while putting food on a foreign worker's table, whereas a guitar that's not bought because it's so expensive doesn't seem to benefit anyone.


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