Monday, October 1, 2012

A Changing Labor Landscape in the Developing World: Part 2

Bangladesh: Battleground for Labor Organization

As Dr. Jeffrey Sachs wrote in his book “The End of Poverty”, while a country such as Bangladesh may be on the bottom rungs of the global economic ladder, the fact that material goods exports continue to rise, and employment numbers continue to rise, is a very hopeful indicator of future economic prosperity. It has been seven years since Dr. Sachs published “The End of Poverty”, but that image of Bangladesh is even more profound today. Bangladesh is currently the second largest exporter of apparel, behind only China, and if the pattern continues Bangladesh may very well see itself becoming significantly more prosperous in the coming decades.

Dr. Sachs is not the only one cognizant of this increased economic success however. Inevitably, the rise in production and increasing employment numbers has seen a parallel increase in the desire for organized labor. Tensions between the employers and the roughly 3.6 million low-skilled workers continue to flare as abysmal wages, poor working conditions and non-existent support regarding company benefits are gradually being seen by workers as unacceptable.

Mr. Islam

 In April, the tension reached culmination when the body of a prominent labor activist had been found days after he had been reported missing. Aminul Islam, a long-time advocate for higher wages and improved working conditions, was found having been tortured to death, presumably by those he had protested against for so long. As a leader and main organizer of the labor group Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the death of Mr. Islam was a major blow dealt to the labor movement and worse, a grim reminder of what can happen to those fighting against factory owners producing for companies such as Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and others.
It is not just the factory owners that are the problem though. The Bangladeshi government has for years walked the tightrope between offering sympathy for the workers, many of whom simply cannot live off the wages they bring home, and offering support for the factory owners, whose operations brought in $18 billion in export sales in 2011 alone. After raising the minimum wage in 2010, a defining step in the right direction for improved labor conditions, the Bangladeshi government made a statement saying they expected labor protests to stop for good, effectively destroying any good will the minimum wage increase may have been perceived as.

One thing stands out as fundamentally lacking in this scenario: constructive dialogue between the government and factory owners, and the workers themselves. On one hand, organized protest can be a powerful and oftentimes effective method for changing policy or influencing decision-making. Regarding labor relations, it is important to protest unfair wages or poor conditions and can be the most aggressive and successful way of changing that quickly. However, protesting is like many other aggressive tactics, and if the Bangladeshi workers continue to protest despite the wage increase instead of trying a more diplomatic approach to continued change, they will get nowhere with a government that will not respond to pressure and does not want to hurt the apparel industry with more wage increases. The two sides need to approach the disagreement peacefully and with respect for the other side’s opinions, engaging one another in dialogue that produces better compromises both can be happy with – until then, violence will only escalate, workers will remain at risk for tragedies such as what occurred recently in Pakistan, and the government will bear the burdens of a massive disgruntled workforce.

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