Disney bagging out on Bangladesh is exactly the wrong thing to do

So, Disney is bagging out on Bangladesh.

The decision was supposedly made before the much-publicized collapse of the garment factory building that killed hundreds of workers. Right, uh huh.

“After much thought and discussion, we felt this was the most responsible way to manage the challenges associated with our supply chain,” a Disney spokesman said.

This is exactly the wrong thing to do. The fact that so many Bangladeshi workers were crammed in that substandard building is testament to one thing: Bangladeshis want to work and desperately need jobs.

As Paul Krugman has noted many times, sweatshop labor is a key force for lifting workers in developing countries out of abject poverty. Even a crappy sweatshop job in the filthy big city is better than you and your children starving to death in the rural countryside. 

Twenty years ago, a lot more garment manufacturing was outsourced to China. Now less and less of it is, because median wages in China are higher now. And they’re higher because as its economy has matured, China’s workers have become more highly skilled and demand higher wages. Thanks in part to sweatshop jobs, many children of Chinese garment workers have better opportunities than their parents. So now garment manufacturers outsource more work to less-developed countries like Bangladesh where wages are lower. 

But here in the West, we don’t want to know that our insatiable appetite for an endless supply of new cheap clothing is enabled by people working under harsh conditions for wages that seem criminally low.

And when something bad like the Rana Plaza disaster happens, one of the first reactions is to pressure the big clothing brands to abandon countries where such worker abuses take place. So will they move the work to countries where worker protections are guaranteed? Who knows? Most of us won’t give any thought to that until the next disaster occurs.

It’s time for consumers in the West to demand change. Product boycotts and factory closures only hurt those who are already the most vulnerable.

We should demand that multinational clothing companies invest in the infrastructure of the countries they outsource to, so that these workers don’t have to sacrifice their safety and their dignity for a subsistence income. And we should be ready to pay for it.

After all, thanks to pressure from consumers and environmental groups, the tuna industry cleaned up its act. Now every can of tuna we buy has a label signifying that its contents were harvested without needlessly endangering dolphins.

No disrespect to dolphins, but what about people? Shouldn’t we be able to buy clothing with a label that lets us know that the humans who made it did so under conditions that protected their safety and respected their dignity?