The blood on Jeffrey Sachs’ hands

These sweatshop jobs are the targets of public protest in developed countries; those protests have helped to improve the safety and quality of the working conditions. The rich-world protesters, however, should support increased numbers of such jobs, albeit under safer working conditions, by protesting the trade protectionism in their own countries that keeps out garment exports from countries from countries such as Bangladesh. These young women already have a foothold in the modern economy that is a critical, measurable step up from the villages of Malawi (and more relevant for the women, a step up from the villages of Bangaladesh where most of them were born). The sweatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty.[1]

Such words, written by Jeffrey Sachs, should sound oddly familiar; they are reminiscent of nostalgia for the Old South, in which former slaveowners asserted that their slaves loved them.[2] They presume to speak for others, for sweatshop workers and for slaves, rationalizing the sweatshop and the plantation, for a life of ease for capitalists and for masters.

The New York Times, in part, echoes those words. But there is more and I quote at length:

The story of Shaheena, involving a heroic if ultimately doomed rescue operation, offered the last bit of hope of finding anyone alive in what is now considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. For hours on April 28, as television reporters broadcast updates, rescuing Shaheena became a national priority. She would be trapped for more than 100 hours.

Her plight attracted so much attention because of the horror of the building collapse, with a death toll that by Sunday had exceeded 600; the drama of the long rescue effort; and the human desire to find a sliver of redemption in the tragedy. But the attention was also an anomaly: there are easily more than 2.5 million women working in the garment industry in Bangladesh whose lives usually attract scant notice, even though they are the workhorses of the national economy.

For women like Shaheena, the garment industry has been a source of empowerment as well as exploitation. Before, few rural women worked outside the fields in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim nation. Many, like Shaheena, are still not given a surname at birth. Now the industry has given many women a first step out of rural distress, with some becoming outspoken labor leaders or managers in their factories.

But more often, a factory job has meant a daily struggle to subsist on low wages consumed by rising rents and living expenses. The day before Rana Plaza collapsed on April 24, the five factories inside the building were temporarily closed when cracks were discovered in the structure. But relatives say Shaheena insisted on returning to work at her factory, Phantom Tec, even as her brother-in-law warned that the building might be unsafe.

“If I don’t go to work tomorrow, I’ll be absent, and I will not get paid for the day,” Shaheena said that afternoon, according to her sister, Jesmine Akhtar. “They may delay my month’s wages. I need to pay the rent. I need to buy milk for my son.”

Her immediate concern was $25. She and her son had lived with her sister’s family in an area called Mojidpur. They were seven people sharing two small rooms with a monthly rent of $56. Even that was too much, so the families found a place for $38 a month. Everyone had moved except Shaheena; she still needed to find $25 for her share of the advance.[3]

To be fair, Sachs acknowledges that the conditions Shaheena endured were abusive and unsafe. But his message is that capitalism is the way out of poverty, a step up from the villages.[4] It would seem, however, that “rich-world” protests have not done nearly enough to improve working conditions. A factory owner insisted on opening the factory where Shaheena worked despite the cracks that had led an engineer to call for it to be closed. And for over 600 people, including Shaheena,[5] the sweatshops are no longer a step up from extreme poverty, but rather their tomb. Their impoverished families now pay an even heavier toll than they already did.

Sachs, an Ivy League professor, advised then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millenium Development Goals, and is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He has made his career as a jet-setting “clinical economist,” prescribing “free” market “solutions” and economic globalization for economies around the world, including those of Bolivia, Poland, and China. In this ideology, each country should produce according to its “comparative advantages,” that is, what it can do more “efficiently,” that is, more cheaply than other places. Bangladesh’s “comparative advantage” includes a cheap workforce with virtually no labor protection; for this, countless textile workers in the U.S. have lost their jobs, although Sachs disputes this, saying the claim is unfounded.[6] Sachs now has the blood of over 600 Bangladeshis on his hands. That would be in addition to the innumerable others killed and maimed in unsafe workplaces around the world. And that would be in addition to the millions who have lost well-paying jobs with decent protections, especially in the United States, to the “comparative advantage” of other places,[7] the millions whose reasonable job security has been replaced with extreme insecurity, and the millions whose middle-class lives have been reduced to poverty.

But Sachs, I’m sure, remains entirely comfortable. He continues to enjoy high esteem among the elite with whom he hobnobs and in the mainstream media. This, to him, is just one more tragedy to be minimized against the “successes” he claims, the “successes” that have made his career, the “successes” that ensure his comfort. He certainly does not work in the sweatshops, does not endure the grinding poverty to which he condemns so many, and in contrast to the abbreviated lifespans wrought by poverty,[8] will enjoy a long and healthy life, which he has been able to develop to the limits of his capabilities,[9] for which he is both acknowledged and rewarded.

I keep hearing about something called karma, in which the scales of justice of the universe are alleged to ensure retribution against evil-doers. But this is a misrepresentation, at least of the Buddhist connotation of the term. For Buddhists, karma is self-imposed; suffering may be the result of evil-doing if the evil-doer recognizes her or his acts as evil. Sachs, however, is blessed by an ideology that informs him as to the righteousness of his actions. A righteousness that has cost too many lives.

  1. [1]Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time (New York: Penguin, 2006), 11
  2. [2]David Anderson, “Down Memory Lane: Nostalgia for the Old South in Post-Civil War Plantation Reminiscences,” Journal of Southern History 71, no. 1 (2005): 105-136.
  3. [3]Jim Yardley, “Last Hope in Ruins: Bangladesh’s Race to Save Shaheena,” New York Times, May 5, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/world/asia/struggle-in-bangladesh-to-save-collapse-survivor.html
  4. [4]Sachs, The End of Poverty.
  5. [5]Yardley, “Last Hope in Ruins.”
  6. [6]Sachs, The End of Poverty.
  7. [7]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  8. [8]Jerry Z. Muller, “Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong,” Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138844/jerry-z-muller/capitalism-and-inequality
  9. [9]Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.