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.