US tariffs, Bangladeshi deaths
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This year, according to news accounts, Bangladesh will have paid more than $600 million annually in American tariffs, even as the United States Agency for International Development said it was committed to $200 million in development aid to Bangladesh. Of course, no free trade legislation is controversy-free. One argument against reducing restrictions on Bangladeshi imports is that it might hurt even poorer countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, that enjoy duty-free access under a 2000 law, the African Growth and Opportunity Act. But studies have shown that extending duty-free access to South Asian goods would have negligible costs, yield huge benefits for Bangladesh's economy and have minimal negative impact on African exports.
Bangladesh's government and industries have a moral duty to prevent catastrophes like the November fire from ever occurring again. They need to insist that factory operators meet safety standards, that inspections are conducted honestly and that recommendations are enforced.
But levelling the playing field of international trade could advance all of these goals. International brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, H&M, Target and Walmart demand low prices and fast turnaround. In that context, high tariffs work against the goals of fair-labour standards and factory safety.
In the fire's aftermath, it's tempting to focus only on local corruption and lax labour standards. But there have been positive changes in recent years; labour groups, businesses, non-governmental organisations and even some international buyers have formed coalitions to improve safety at many factories. In a survey I conducted of garment workers at established factories, 62 per cent said labour conditions had improved.
But for improvements in workers' well-being to have lasting effect, tariffs on exports to the US, the world's largest consumer market, must be eased.
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