observations and opinion
As a management labour lawyer, I am proud of my clients’ commitment to workplace health and safety. Their efforts save and improve workers’ lives. Some of the most important work being done to protect workers, and some of the most effective and professional people engaged in it, are company owners and managers. We work with safety specialists, trade unions, committed individual workers and it gets better every day.
But for all the good we do at home, what good are we doing elsewhere?
The latest Bangladeshi incident of industrial murder (80 dead so far) comes on the heels of earlier disasters. Consumers and shareholders of companies doing business in offshore jurisdictions have the capacity to materially improve the lives of workers there, and if North American experience is any guide, such improvements would actually make workplaces more productive and profitable. Yet movement is slow. The “Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement” has been sitting, ready for companies to sign up, since November 2012. PVH (which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfinger) have signed it. The GAP has commited $20 million to Bangladeshi workplace improvement. That’s a start.
Some large apparel companies have already made real commitments to better conditions in overseas factories. More can be done. Bashing “corporations” and all that blah blah blah won’t change things. It might make people feel good, but it won’t help. Similarly, grinding on about the local authorities may be fair, but there’s not much each of us can do to change the habits or staffing levels at local fire departments in Asia. Political action isn’t powerless, but it is neither the most immediate nor the most likely tool to be effective.
The answer lies deep with us. Deep within our pockets, actually. Are cheap t-shirts a good enough reason to go on like this? How many more Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fires and similar disasters do we need to see, before we figure it out? Free markets can help to effect change, if the people participating in those free markets (including consumers) use them. Will we?