Bangladesh revisited

Back in November we received and published a thoughtful letter from a Pilkington resident about a fire that swept through a factory in Bangladesh, killing over 100 workers.

The writer made a plea to our readers that some thought be given to supporting locally-produced items sold by locally-owned businesses.

It was in a sense a positive suggestion for action to curb the ravenous appetite for cheap, mass-produced goods that is entrenched in more affluent cultures like North America.

With the collapse of a multi-level factory in Bangladesh last week, people sensitive to the plight of poorly paid labour overseas were calling for boycotts. They suggest that companies which purchase from sweat shops that keep production costs low through poor safety rules and slave wages should not be rewarded financially by shoppers here. While that point is understood, it does not address the need for jobs in those countries too.

The Joe Fresh brand sold at Loblaws stores was one recognizable company that purchased products from the razed factory. To their credit, Loblaws intends to help surviving family members financially as they rebuild their shattered lives. At least that effort is a start.

North Americans have enjoyed cheap clothing for quite some time. In fact, the prices leave many shoppers curious how they can purchase them so cheaply. We can recall writing many times about garment factory closures here that were devastating to local communities.

The economics or simple mathematics had turned upside down to the point that products can be shipped from the other side of the world cheaper than it could be made here.

It is expensive to do business in North America, at least in certain industries. Apart from the obvious climate issues and labour costs, there is a regulatory regimen and mandated wage structure that does not lend itself to producing cheap goods.

Efforts to innovate seem to have plateaued, making it difficult for manufacturers to achieve less expensive price points demanded by retailers and their shoppers. Depending on the industry, it also leaves a void for workers that have skills and abilities suited for such work.

Much can be said about the greed of corporate behemoths and their insatiable appetite for profit over the needs of the very people who are expected to purchase their goods. We get that in spades.

A point of curiosity to us that seems overlooked is how elements of the economy, like the garment industry and its trek overseas, have unwittingly masked inflation in recent years. Other examples, like vehicles, hardware, flooring, tires, tools, equipment and other imported goods have allowed North Americans to feel pretty prosperous in the last decade or two. We have lots of stuff in this land of plenty.

It will be interesting to see how this sleight of hand eventually plays out. At some point prices will head upward and the illusion of cheap goods will come crashing down, much like that unfortunate factory in Bangladesh.