TCS Daily

Workers of the World, Decide

By Manzur Alam Tipu - December 8, 2003 12:00 AM

Despite all the well-funded research programs devoted to understanding the situation of developing countries, popular thinking abroad is that poor people in poor countries live the same way as poor people in rich countries. This ignorance empowers the protectionist elements of the First World to garner support for all sorts of damaging -- and patronizing -- policies in the Third World.

Recently the US government rejected Bangladesh's request for extending the moratorium on the formation of trade unions in the Export Processing Zones (EPZ). Despite Bangladesh's repeated pleas to the US government, the latter has notified the former that unless formation of trade unions in the EPZ is permitted, Bangladesh will no longer get the preferential access it has been receiving for its textile products for the last 20 years. This action on the part of the US government is likely to jeopardize hundreds of thousands of poor Bangladeshi workers who were lucky enough to land relatively lucrative EPZ jobs.


The AFL-CIO, an American labor union, has what it considers a convincing explanation for this action by the US government. It says it wants to protect the legitimate rights of Bangladeshi workers, whose interests are allegedly shortchanged by their own government and the businesses that employ them. But Koreans business interests (which have the highest percentage of investments in the EPZs of Bangladesh) as well as several other foreign investor groups, have clearly stated that the moment the unions are permitted, they will leave Bangladesh. How does this help Bangladeshis?


Anyone really interested in getting a handle on labor rights or children's rights and their related problems in a country like Bangladesh, should first try to appreciate that the imposition of "rich country norms" can do more harm than good. When children are pushed out from export-oriented factories, they are more likely to be found in far more dangerous jobs rather than in schools. It cannot be forgotten that the root cause of child labor continues to be extremely inadequate family income.


Under strong international pressure, children have been replaced by adult workers in the garment factories of Bangladesh, and reportedly put in schools. When I went to Geneva two years ago, I was informed by an ILO executive that the child labor rehabilitation case of Bangladesh was considered a success story. But no one talked about child laborers engaged in other non-export related work.


It is not my case that our governments always know what is best for us, or that the international community has no role to play here. However, if the international community wants to impose conditions, let those conditions be based on something more substantial than superficial sentiment that what is good for them must be good for us. Let Bangladeshi families decide where to send their kids and let the workers decide whether they want trade union rights for themselves.


Manzur Alam Tipu is a commentator and radio talk show host based in Bangladesh.

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