As the Bangladeshi factory collapse death toll passes well over 1,000, improving the conditions of textile workers should become central to development strategies. Conversations around international development often become stuck in process such as instituting aid accountability mechanisms, or the difficulties of bureaucratisation in developing responses to contagious disease. Academic literature and studies on Bangladesh mostly focus on Muhammad Yunnus’ micro-financing model. But the literature is abstracted from the realities of Bangladeshi people.
While 94% of Yunnus’ Grameen Bank loans are awarded to women, it is not by itself a successful development strategy as evidenced by the deaths of mostly women garment workers. Micro-credit has uses in development but cannot alone boost the economic bargaining power of the world’s poor. Unions are the primary means by which the working-class and poor across the world ensure their jobs reflect middle-class living standards. Micro-finance and the development of non-corrupt state bureaucracy form an important part of any Bangladeshi development strategy. But trade unions cannot be removed from this equation. The importance of decent work in international development is increasingly recognised particularly in promoting democracy.
The Rana plaza factory’s unsafe conditions are directly linked to the lack of unionisation. Many like Paul Krugman defend child labour in economically developing countries, arguing economic development and not incomes are the main consideration when it comes to poverty in Bangladesh. But garment workers’ attempts to organise contradict this. Previous garment industry strikes have centred on enforcing child labour laws and raising a minimum wage worth less than £25 a month in a country where half of the 160 million population lives in poverty. The workers’ calls to not go back in the Rana Plaza building would have been more effective with a union. Attempts to ensure workplace safety have sought a defined legal framework after a Dhaka garment factory fire last year claimed the lives of over 100 workers. Bangladeshi workers have forced many factories to close since the Rana plaza disaster. The workers themselves have a coherent development strategy with regards to Bangladesh and its reliance on the garment industry. It would involve the co-operation of government, factory owners, and Western retailers who have all played their part in diminishing worker safety; the retailers would have to financially contribute to an independent inspectorate that universally enforces building codes and standards so as not to incentivise cutting back on building safety.
Bangladesh has much of the infrastructure required to uphold standards – namely building codes – but they do not work. Development strategies can’t just focus on top-down state development – they need to recognise civil society actors like trade unions as vital to Bangladeshi development. Judging development on the success of Bangladesh’s political system is meaningless if workers’ voices are ignored and union leaders are cracked down on. While no one area of development can be taken in isolation, the immediate step of boosting pay and living standards for Bangladeshi workers is essential to tackling poverty. Perhaps the aim should go as far as applying domestic labour laws on companies outsourcing the garment trade to Bangladesh. The cost of doubling wages for Bangladeshi garment workers may be as little as 2p a piece of clothing for such an effective redistribution of wealth to some of the world’s poorest workers.
Unions can help the world’s poor in the same way they created a middle-class in the West, and play a broader role in ensuring Bangladesh’s political development.