We call them the LLCC's – the Low Labor Cost Countries – and we rationalize having the goods we buy made there through a convenient, but entirley fabricated, interpretation of an economic theory called 'Comparative Advantage'. It is a fabrication because the theory is based on productivity – not hourly wages. It is driven by the idea that goods should be made wherever the collective combination of hours results in the overall minimum consumption of human effort – not wherever the economic and regulatory framework is most abusive. And it is convenient because it enables us to avoid acknowledging why we are really buying from these countries.
We could just as accurately call them LWSCC's – Low Workplace Safety Cost Countries – just as great a contributor to the low cost as labor – but it doesn't really have a moral ring to it, does it?
The similarities between the fire in Bangladesh last week and the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York in 1911 are striking Locked doors, blocked exits, abusive management in a factory full of over-worked, grossly underpaid women doing garment work.
Those practices were shamefully common in the Unites States a hundred years ago, but we don't allow that sort of thing any more. We collectively examined our consciences and decided that, while we want the things we buy to be cheap, we don't want to save money so badly that workers should suffer and even die in the process.
That's the way of it in democracies with functioning economies driven by free enterprise principles. We strike that balance, or attempt to anyway. Similar decisions have been made in the UK,and in Australia and New Zealand, in Japan and throughour western Europe, in Canada and in every legitimate democracy.
Or we could call them LECC'c – Low Environmental Cost Countries – again, a big contributor to why the costs are low, but not the sort of thing people in advanced countries want to acknowledge.
Or perhaps we could call them NCLLC''s – No Child Labor Limit Countries, but, again, we don't want to live with that.
There are lots of reasons why the cost of the shirt in Bangladesh or Gutamala is lower than in North Carolina. It is most convenient to focus on the hourly labor rates and to hide behind an economic theory from a book no one has read, even though everyone connected with manufacturing knows that the cost of production labor is a pretty low element of the total cost of shirts or much of anything else.
It is also convenient to delude ourselves into thinking payng those women in Bangaldesh 18 cents an hour helps them – it's better than nothing. In fact, the only thing that is going to help the women in Bangladesh is a functional economy with a government that is a whole lot better than 120th on Transparency International's corruption index.
Walmart, Target, Sears, Disney and the rest of the retailers whose goods were made in the factory that burned claim ignorance, as I imagine their customers do who Walmart and the rest say compel them to buy in Bangladesh rather than in countries that have chosen to preclude such human tragedies from happening. But they knew … maybe not about that specific factory, but they knew they were buying from factories where such events are likely to happen. It is why they are there – to avoid the cost of such things not happening.
Giving these countries a free pass on what we know is fundamentally right and fundamentally wrong because they are 'developing nations'? Another senseless, but convenient, rationalization. How about they develop to the point that they have a basic level of respect for their citizenry first, then we help out with the economics … but such respect adds to the cost of running their factories – doing things the right way is often not doing them the cheap way – and that cost will be embedded in the Disney shirt we want to wear … hence the convenience of the free pass for developing nation status.
I am foursquare in the camp of those who believe that the United States and most other western nations have let the pendulum swing too far – that we are grossly over-regulated, burdening manufacturing with exhorbitant costs to comply with unnecessary restrictions. But I am also a firm believer that we solve the over-regulation problem by battling it out with the regulators in Washington – not by throwing out the collective morality that drove us to resolve that another Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire would never again happen.
It is high time all of us westerners took a good, long, honest look in the mirror and asked ourselves just what it is we really stand for. Our predecessors had the principles to decide that our natural desire to have the good things in life at the lowest cost was not worth killing workers, trashing the planet and abusing children. I sure don't want for anything badly enough that women should die, children should be abused or people in China can't breathe so I can have it.