Texas and Bangladesh. Two places that are literally worlds apart. One is the second largest state in the United States of America, a center for the rich oil and high-tech industries with a GDP of $1.2 trillion, and known for its vast sprawl, fiercely proud culture, and larger-than-life personality. The other is a developing nation in South Asia, a center for low cost garment manufacturing with a GDP of $119 billion, and known more for its overpopulation, poverty and political corruption than for its culture.
But despite this wide dichotomy, the two places do have something in common -- rapid economic growth. Texas is the fastest-growing economy in the United States and Bangladesh is considered by many to be an emerging world economy and part of the 'Next Eleven.'
Those should be badges of honor except that the economic philosophy fueling that growth is one that allows the exploitation of workers and treats their safety as a secondary concern in the pursuit of profits. The recent fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, which killed 15 people, and the tragic collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh, which has claimed more than a thousand lives, may be accidents, but they were accidents that occurred due to poor regulatory oversight and lax safety standards exercised by the private sector.
Texas authorities have launched a criminal probe into the fertilizer plant explosion, but whatever happened, some facts are indisputable. The plant violated federal regulations by failing to disclose their storage of 270 tons of ammonium nitrate -- a highly explosive substance -- there were no fire sprinklers in the warehouse, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had not done a full safety inspection since 1985, and a partial review in 2011 resulted in a meager fine for safety violations. Throughout this, the plant remained operational and profitable for West Fertilizer Co. The Bangladesh clothing factory disaster, similarly, was the outcome of shoddy building, lack of oversight by the government, and pure greed on the part of the owners.
But this is where things really turn bizarre.
In response to the factory collapse and international pressure, the Bangladeshi government has shut down three factories owned by the largest garment manufacturer in the country -- due to extreme safety violations, and has promised a review of facilities nationwide. In addition, the government has announced its intent to raise the minimum wage of garment workers, which currently stands at a shamefully low $38 a month and exacerbates their misery. While it remains to be seen if the Bangladeshi government will keep its promises, and while it is guaranteed that garment manufacturers will create a stink, these are still highly welcome and necessary moves.
Texas, however, seems to be going in the opposite direction.
Instead of acknowledging the breakdown in industrial safety that the fertilizer plant explosion represents, Texas Governor Rick Perry has instead adopted the stance that it is precisely the lack of oversight that attracts business to the state and that tougher safety regulations would just hamper the ability of Texans to make more money. This despite the fact that Texas boasts the highest number of workplace fatalities (more than 400 annually) in the country, including from fires and explosions at the state's many chemical and industrial plants. Adding insult to injury, state lawmakers even nixed $60 million in funding for the training of volunteer firefighters, something that should be a no-brainer for any state.
Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows, and apparently so does economics. I am sure that both Texans and Bangladeshis would be equally surprised that they share anything, let alone a philosophy, but that seems to be the case.
The only difference is that unlike Bangladesh, Texas is already extremely wealthy and can afford to adopt a more balanced and humanitarian approach to economic growth. Instead, the former seems to be modernizing while Governor Perry pushes his state towards an unreasonably purist form of capitalism. I find that astonishing.
Economic growth is fantastic but it is of little value when it comes at the cost of workers' safety. I know that Texas is a red state but Governor Perry should put aside political ideology for the sake of protecting the safety and rights of workers. Otherwise, Bangladesh might just outpace the Lone Star state in good business sense, and I doubt the Republicans will like that.
SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He is a banker, has an MBA from Columbia Business School, and is the author of a new thriller entitled "Killing Wall Street". For more information and blogs, please visit his website at www.killingwallstreet.com