Promoting competition is considered the best available option for increasing economic well-being. The recent global financial crisis prompted policymakers to reconsider basic assumptions, but the virtues of competition were not among them. However, gone are the days when practitioners slept sound thinking the economy, if left alone, is self-correcting.
The limitations of competition as a force for universal good are well-known. Consumers can be inadequately informed, making it possible for firms to take advantage of them. The intrinsic difficulty of matching skills to positions and the costs associated with moving jobs may make workers stay with abusive employers. More basically, in a world where people have imperfect information and workers can’t always leave their employer, firms may be able to respond by cutting corners and abusing consumers and workers.
Is the problem with competition itself or the legal and informal institutions that yield this type of competition? The answer depends in part on one’s ideological lens—namely the belief of competition existing outside a regulatory framework, necessitating governmental intervention in the marketplace versus the belief that regulatory forces help create, define, and nurture competition in the market, necessitating improvements to the legal framework if competition is failing.
Some policies that supposedly restrict competition are justified for promoting competition. Intellectual property rights, for example, can restrict competition along lets say the use of a trade name. But the argument is that intellectual property and antitrust policies complement, rather than conflict, one another in promoting innovation and competition.
Life will surely be more stressful if we needed to compete for everything. Cooperation is often more relaxing. Society and competitors at times benefit when rivals cooperate in joint ventures to address collective needs. Competition can make people less cooperative, promote free-riding, and reduce contributions to public goods, thus leaving society worse off.
The point is not all forms of competition are beneficial. Just as athletic contests distinguish between fair and foul play, the law distinguishes between fair and unfair methods of competition. Bangladesh’s garment industry is a contemporary case in point. The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh brought to the fore the pathetic state of working conditions in many factories serving the global supply chains. The structure of the supply chain itself—the relationship among regulators, buyers, suppliers, and workers—is fundamentally related to these problems.
The practice of subcontracting is routine in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The prevalence of competitive indirect sourcing strategies has resulted in a supply chain driven by the pursuit of nominal cost minimization. It has increased risks for business and workers by undermining prices, wages, working conditions, and investment in productivity and quality. The apparel units engaged in sub-contracting are mostly non-compliant particularly in paying wages and maintaining safety standards.
Question is why do compliant factory owners take recourse to such sub-contractors? Major global buyers see Bangladesh as a market where they can obtain the most competitive prices for a high volume of lower end products. Consequently, they set low price targets. The manufacturers compete for large orders by undercutting each other, further driving down the prices. They make delivery commitments far in excess of their capacity to produce without breaching compliance. When prices are dramatically driven down, the natural tendency of a garment manufacturer is to manage their unit at a least cost with regard to overheads and wages. The pressure to drive these down arise inevitably.
The fallout from the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh has had severe domestic and international reactions. The international buyers and governments have responded vehemently to these events. Careful reappraisal of labor issues has been universally identified as a key area of reform. The objective is to ensure workers’ safety and workers’ rights. Poor labor standards can adversely affect Bangladesh’s overall reputation in the exporting sector. The government has been pressured to take a series of measures to improve workers’ safety. Representatives of the Bangladesh government, the European Union and the International Labor Organization met in Geneva on July 8, 2013 to promote improved labor standards and responsible business conduct in Bangladesh’s garment industry. Following up on the commitments made in Geneva, Bangladesh’s legislature recently amended the Bangladesh Labor Law to provide improved protection, in law and practice, for the fundamental rights to freedom of association and the rights to collective bargaining, among others.
Are these good economics and good politics now and in the future?
The garment industry in Bangladesh has been subject to several tests of resilience in recent years—global recession, energy shortage, input price increases, and labor unrest. Of late, the labor unrest has escalated apparently triggered by disagreement over re-fixation of minimum wage. The workers, for quite some time now, have been pressing for adjustment in minimum wage that was last increased in 2006, after 12 years, from Tk. 930* (about $60 in PPP) per month to Tk. 1,662 (about $108 in PPP) per month. The government in April 2010 committed that a new pay-scale for the RMG workers will be announced before Ramadan, and formed a Wage Board for making the wage recommendations. For reasons not yet fully understood, the labor unrest was reignited recently without waiting to hear what the Wage Board’s recommendations are. However, it is abundantly clear that dissatisfaction with the nominal level of the minimum wage is at the center of the discord between garment owners and workers.
- South Asia
- Macroeconomics and Economic Growth
- Private Sector Development
- Social Development
- Labor and Social Protection
- Urban Development
- garment industry
- Minimum Wage
- Purchasing Power
- Household Size
- Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association
- Wage theory