What do they want from Bangladesh?

 Published in: The Daily Star on December 13, 2023
What do they want from Bangladesh?


Recently, the US government rolled out the Presidential Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labor Standards Globally. During his speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made specific references to Bangladesh and added that the US government would work to “hold accountable” those who threaten and attack labour rights and would impose trade sanctions, penalties, and visa restrictions on countries that deviate from what the US advocates for. Almost immediately, this triggered US buyers into inserting clauses in contracts relating to shipments, clearly stating that in cases of any sanctions or trade embargoes, the payment conditions in the sales contract would lose validity.

Of course, it’s clear that there is a political context behind any “memorandum” and that these sanctions and embargoes are often imposed by nations that do not politically favour countries that fall short of their expectations.

The question is, what is it that they want from Bangladesh?

It’s pretty obvious that most individuals, most companies, and most nations want to look good while doing the least and by routinely rolling out megaphone rhetoric. But how far have the Western countries themselves come so far?

Instead of better governance yielding better returns, and instead of strategising to maximise returns with good practices, most companies in the US emphasise “value” over “values.” Florida and four other US states have banned pension funds being invested with asset managers dealing with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors. Additionally, 17 red states, led by Texas, bar state pension funds from being invested with asset managers who disfavour oil, gas and firearms. The US multinational investment company BlackRock has $170 billion worth of investments in non-renewable energy; Apple, Amazon and Tesla all fail human rights-related rankings. Tesla and Apple, being major battery users, are engaged in cobalt mining; Apple also uses child labour in the Congo and Uighur labour in China. These are stories that ought to shame the nations that host these businesses.

Apart from these heinous practices, many companies want to merely pass the ESG test, with their real goal being to ensure profits for the shareholders and issue materially misleading statements. In many instances, simply adopting a resolution (watch COP28 and its endless resolutions) is rewarded. A few years ago, ESG data vendor MSCI came up with ratings of 155 companies, which were upgraded in 18 months without the companies actually making any changes besides, say, adopting a data protection policy. Only one firm got upgraded because of actual carbon emission cuts.

The standards are so off a real metric that it’s clear why Apple scores highly despite labour violations at Foxconn, and why Chevron tops as an ESG performer despite the tailpipe fumes from cars that have their tanks filled with gasoline refined from oil. There’s a reason why in 2022 Goldman agreed to pay $1.5 million to quash greenwashing investigations, and why no one talks about the McDonald’s story of rising methane emissions from cattle flatulence and instead focuses on the company’s high ESG rating, which it gained by making packaging less wasteful two years ago.

The reason why hypocrisy prevails is because many powerful nations, including the US, only tick the boxes of standards that they themselves ignore but prescribe to others.

Today, the West talks about us violating human rights, whereas at their own ends, they host companies which singularly focus on profit instead of purpose and seek financial return in place of ethical return. Even selling goodness data (ESG ratings) is a huge, $1 billion business. The whole world seems to be spinning around financial materiality, whereas, on the ground, little is being done to make consumers aware. That there is a greater need to invest in human capital (besides just having minimum wage conversations) is something that many Western companies do not see or care to understand. And that is why it hurts the most when Bangladesh, which employs four million workers in its ready-made garment (RMG) sector, is deplored for having unfair labour practices.

Luckily, things are changing in academia and, much to our pleasure, New York University’s business school has just come up with a report that refers to job creation as the “unrewarded social virtue.” It points out that ESG ratings reward tech companies for shedding jobs as no visible labour means no labour problems. Unfortunately, in today’s world, tech companies are deemed the most virtuous bunch while the industrials wear the “ugly” tags. After all, handling a few thousand people in a factory does consume energy, while saving energy by writing software requires little or almost none.

A recent essay in The New York Times by Yvon Chouinard, owner of Patagonia, caught my attention. He writes about taxing companies that source lower quality apparel. Patagonia is a company that has close-to-zero sourcing from Bangladesh and sells jackets to consumers by preaching mending an existing garment instead of buying a new one. It promotes sustainable consumption without having the faintest idea about a poor, hardworking worker from Bangladesh who would have no job if brands reduced their sourcing. I am not an apologist for waste, but I do believe in the brands paying more even when they source less. Chouinard’s “Responsibili-Tee” sells for $45 and his long-sleeved, “organic” cotton flannel shirt sells for $99, while many buyers pay $1 for a tee and $3 for flannels when sourcing from Bangladesh. Are the products sourced from Vietnam or Turkey or elsewhere 15 times better than what Bangladesh supplies? Nope. It’s just that the country concept of Bangladesh is at the lowest ebb, for now and ever, helping sourcing departments to aim for the “cheap.”

Real change actually happened in 1758 with the Quaker Philadelphia Yearly Meeting prohibiting members from engaging in the slave trade; with Martin Luther King expanding the scope of Operation Breadbasket in 1967; with a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running towards a camera in June 1972, her body burnt by a napalm bomb attack, causing outrage against Dow Chemical (which manufactured napalm for the US armed forces during the Vietnam War); and with Reverend Sullivan introducing principles in 1977 to pressurise businesses to draft a charter calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa. But the times have truly changed. Some nations have by now learnt to penalise nations through arm-twisting announcements of potential embargoes and sanctions. Instead of taking full advantage of being part of a great story of labour and actually contributing to the cause, a few countries in the West now wear the badge of pride for the wrong reasons—especially when the transgressors live right within their own borders. Little do they realise that through their poorly scripted labour rights dialogues, they end up hurting workers the most.

The least that the West can do now is set the records straight and admit that it is pointless to feed wrong and confusing goals to consumers, and that it’s time to measure real outcomes in Bangladesh’s economy instead of issuing threats and rocking the industry that feeds millions here.

Dr Rubana Huq is vice-chancellor of Asian University for Women.