Garment factories as role models?

Posted on May 5, 2008 by ELCA World Hunger

I’ve decided to go out on a limb today. I’m writing about something I probably have no business writing about. I apologize in advance to all whom I offend with my ignorance, and I welcome your comments and corrections. But I’m curious about something: How should businesses (globally) respond to the food crisis? And what should we ask and expect of them?

My question arises from an article I read today on the BBC International web site about garment factory owners in Bangladesh. Factory owners there have started to distribute subsidized rice to their lowest paid workers as food prices force people to skip meals and some food groups. The government is doing something similar, but government purchasing locations are only open during working hours, so factory employees haven’t been able to participate.

I also learned that the garment industry accounts for 3/4 of Bangladesh’s export income. In my mind, that ranks the importance of the garment industry close to that of the government’s in some ways.

At this point you may be thinking, “Why don’t the factory owners just pay their employees a living wage and give them the time off work they need?” Certainly the thought crossed my mind, too, and certainly the companies aren’t acting from pure altruism when they subsidize rice for their employees. People who don’t get enough to eat, and who need to wait in government lines during the day, will be less productive and have increased absenteeism. That’s bad for business, especially when you’re competing with China, India, Vietnam, and other low-cost locations. What’s more, since the garment industry is such a huge part of Bangladesh’s economy, slowing its production and growth would cause even more problems, at least in the short term (though there’s certainly an argument to be made for longer-term diversification). And it won’t help a factory worker to lose his job in order to stand in line for cheaper rice. So even if these garment factories are not doing all they could do, and even if their motives are displeasing, they are bringing relief that’s not otherwise available.

So I ask myself, if businesses and industry have power and resources, and also have an interest in keeping people healthy, working, and buying their products, why are they not a larger part of the conversation about addressing the food crisis? At a minimum, people spending more of their income on food will have less to spend on other products and services. At worst, people who are starving will not be coming to work, and the business or industry will falter. Yet most of the reporting I hear involves the responses of government, globabl political bodies like the UN and WTO, and not-for-profits. That’s why today’s BBC article caught my eye – it seemed unusual. Buy why? Where are the voices of business and industry? Perhaps they are there, and I just haven’t been reading or listening to the right things (entirely possible!). But I also wonder if we don’t somewhat overlook the business sector when we look for solutions. Perhaps our initial reaction to a crisis should be not only “What are governments doing?” but rather, “What are governments doing and how are businesses assisting or complementing those efforts?” And then we should expect a real answer.

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