The recent building collapse in Bangladesh reflected both the best and the worst of humanity. On the one hand, there were the city-dwellers living on less than two dollars a day who dug into their own pockets to provide biscuits and saline water to the injured. On the other, there was the nefarious, multimillionaire factory owner who allegedly attempted to flee to India.
This horrific incident has brought to center stage just how connected the developed world is to these workers toiling away in a distant and impoverished land. Many of the garments Americans and Europeans wear are the products of labor in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable. But the traditional image of starving, red-eyed workers in damp, poorly lit sweatshops being harassed in a variety of wicked ways fails to do justice to a very important and central concern.
It is not just that workers are exposed to conditions that progressively reduce their well-being. In fact, as this tragedy highlights, they are often forced to take on unreasonable risk to their personal safety. This, in turn, reflects what we call the “governance deficit”, which means one or both of:  A failure of the relevant agencies to routinely detect and monitor workplace safety conditions and issue appropriate recommendations or directives to law enforcement;  An inability of the regulatory framework, including but not limited to the local police force, to promptly and efficaciously act on the reports of the monitoring agencies.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Dhaka’s governance deficit is chilling, and means that we may have to condition ourselves for further preventable human tragedies. Yet constructive solutions could be forged without demonizing the export-oriented textiles sector of what is, after all, an impoverished country. As Benetton CEO Biagio Chiarolanza has said, commercial partnerships between Bangladeshi factories and Western multinationals represent a very potent, market-based approach to achieving economic prosperity. However desirable this prosperity may be, it cannot come at the expense of the lives of those with the least bargaining power in the global marketplace.
Given these concerns, one approach to addressing the governance deficit in Bangladesh would be a foreign-donor/trade partner-led initiative. Essentially, Western trade partners would set up a monitoring agency in Bangladesh, much like a credit rating agency, which would inspect factories and other workplaces and provide a comprehensive rating of the treatment of workers and the conditions that they face. This would tackle the first horn of the governance deficit. Recognizing that sovereignty over enforcement cannot be surrendered to a foreign agency, we propose that principal foreign trading partners pass a law prohibiting the entry of goods manufactured in factories that do not meet a pre-defined ratings threshold.