Is the Bangladeshi garments sector facing collapse?
Deyalpotrika has compiled recent New York Times articles on labour unrest in the Bangladeshi garments sector. She provocatively asks whether ‘Made in Bangladesh’ will become a scarlett letter. In the comments section, Naeem Mohaiemen claims:
If you don’t think this is the coming crisis that will destroy Bangladesh’s economy, you’re too busy with other tamasha …. Look at the NYT reader comments and you can see the contours of the coming Bangladeshi goods boycott.
Now, I enjoy a tamasha as the next person. But I enjoy thinking about economics even more, and definitely lot more than the next person. So I’ve thought about the issue. Are we really likely to see a boycott of Bangladeshi goods? No, I doubt we will.
History suggests that the political economy of consumer boycott is pretty straightforward. You need a cause that appeals to the average consumer’s moral sensitivities. You need an organised political force. And the item being boycotted should be something that can be easily identifiable, and that people can do without. If the campaign doesn’t appeal to the average consumer’s moral sensitivity, it will flounder. Even if the average Jane is outraged, without organisation, activism will flounder. And the boycott will be hard to enforce unless you can identify iconic items that people can do without. Take away any of these elements, and the consumer boycott won’t be effective.
Consider the boycotting of sports from Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and the 1980s — arguably the most successful consumer boycott in history. By the third quarter of the 20th century, the average person in the west came to reject vile, blatant racism of the apartheid variety on moral grounds. Various progressive groups that fought for civil rights or against Vietnam War in earlier years provided the organisation behind the boycott campaign. And the average consumers could easily identify South African athletes and teams, and those athletes weren’t missed because there was no shortage of other sports for the average Joe.
Do these conditions hold for Bangladeshi garments products?
Is there any moral outrage in the middle America about the plight of the Bangladeshi garments workers? A few dozen comments in the NYTimes is hardly representative of anyone (if they were, Obamacare would have meant genuine socialisation of American healthcare, and members of Bush administration would be on trial for war crimes). Is there any polling evidence to suggest that Americans (or other western consumers) even know about Bangladeshi garments industry, let alone have an opinion on it.
What about the political organisation? The organised labour — such as the AFL-CIO, the major American trade union movement — could, in theory, push for labour rights in Bangladesh. But will they? Trade unions are primarily concerned with jobs, wages, and working conditions of their members or potential members. Does Bangladeshi garments sector threaten any of these? No. Ready made garments had left America (and other western countries) decades ago. Bangladeshi garments workers are no threat to American factory workers.
And finally, the item being boycotted. Americans can easily do without Bangladeshi shirts. But the problem is elsewhere. How will one go about enforcing a boycott of made in Bangladesh products? It’s not like you can just look at someone’s shirt and say — a-ha, Bangladeshi shirt, boycott! I mean, think about it for a second, how will the boycott work? Is the idea to check the label in people’s shirts and shame anyone wearing them?
Let’s come at this from a different angle. Here is a product that is easily identifiable.
Here is the controversy around it — significantly more news coverage than a few NYT articles. Unlike Bangladesh, China is America’s major geo-political rival for global supremacy. Both sides in the American presidential campaign complain about the loss of manufacturing jobs — in sectors such as this — to China. And yet, have we seen any suggestion of boycotting Made in China?
Of course not.
And neither will we see any campaign to boycott Bangladeshi products.
Do we have problems in our garments sector? Absolutely. Let’s discuss those problems, instead of worrying about phantom menace.