The April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza, a building hosting numerous garment factories on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, has now claimed more than 1,100 lives. There is no mitigating the disaster for the families of those killed or maimed, or for the nation of Bangladesh.
I had the true pleasure of spending a week in Bangladesh back in December 2008. After having spent time in Pakistan, Bangladesh is a breath of fresh air. While the specter of extremism, aggrievement, an embrace of terrorism and an obsession with its neighbors permeates Pakistan and Pakistani society, Bangladesh exudes tolerance and a general desire by its people that the fate of their country is in their own hands. Much of the difference between the two outlooks rests in the brutal birth of Bangladesh. Its 1971 independence war claimed upwards of 850,000 lives—far more than in Bosnia or the past two years of Syrian atrocities. Pakistan—which controlled what is now Bangladesh from 1947-1971—sought a state based on religious identity. Bengalis, who generally embraced much more moderate interpretations of Islam, embraced ethnic and cultural identities beyond religion. More than four decades later, Pakistanis who organize around ethnicity or secular ideas are considered traitors, and religious parties reign supreme. The opposite is true in Bangladesh.
The shrill reaction in the West to the Rana Plaza disaster risks taking a tragedy and compounding it multifold. The failure to enforce building codes is criminal, and should be punished. But to suggest—as Pope Francis did when he declared, “Living on 38 euros ($50) a month … That is called slave labor,” is nonsense. Many British NGOs, however, are following his lead. Six hundred dollars a year might be a pittance in Italy or Argentina—and it may not make someone comfortably middle class in Bangladesh—but it is a livable wage, and one which can be used to improve one’s family. Bangladesh may be one of the poorer countries on earth—but it is no Haiti, Afghanistan, Nepal, or even Rwanda.
However, in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, Disney pulled out of Bangladesh. “After much thought and discussion we felt this was the most responsible way to manage the challenges associated with our supply chain,” Bob Chapek, president of Disney Consumer Products, told CNN. Other major chains and brand names may follow suit. To do so, however, would be to compound the problem.
Bangladesh’s greatest asset is its people. To demand that Bangladeshi industry operate by the same standards that developed Western economies do is to take away from Bangladesh its competitive advantage. To pull out of Bangladesh is to punish the hundreds of thousands of people who seek work. In past episodes in which Western do-gooders sought to crack down on underage labor, the result was a huge spike in child prostitution and other illegal and socially corrosive activities. If Bangladeshis are put out of work, they will also become more susceptible to groups like Jamaat-e-Islami which are becoming steadily more aggressive, as well as Saudi charities that seek to make inroads into the country with the fifth largest Muslim population. Few Islamic charities are strings-free.
Rather than kick the Bangladeshis while they are down, a far better strategy would be to ensure that the government adheres to the workplace safety reforms that were already underway at the time of last month’s disaster. Corporate responsibility should not simply be to react to the politically correct winds of the West’s chattering class, but to also consider what might actually improve the societies and best aid the people in which they operate.