Archon Fung, Dara O'Rourke, and Charles Sabel are to be commended
for devising their creative "Ratcheting Labor Standards" (RLS), for
attempting to add details and teeth to monitoring plans, for their focus
on public disclosure, and for their thoughtful discussion of informal
versus formal sectors and domestic versus export sectors. This is exactly
the sort of new proposal that deserves broad discussion and might advance
the work against corporate-led globalization. Without such concrete
proposals we are unlikely to move beyond the current wave of scattered
corporate codes of conduct, which are still in their early stages of
We also need more such proposals on the table because we (individuals
and groups, activists and scholars, North and South) need to learn how
to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of any given proposal without
turning disagreements into divisive debates. To be blunt, much of the
debate about codes of conduct over the last few years has involved bickering
among should-be allies. Case in point is the debate between proponents
of the Fair Labor Association and the Workers' Rights Consortium, which
involves a dispute over the merits of two plans, neither of which has
been tested broadly in the field.
Let me take up the authors' call to engage in discussion about their
proposal and share five questions that RLS raises for me. I pose these
as food-for-thought—and not criticisms—to the authors and
to other academics and activists working on proposals to make trade
and investment more socially and environmentally responsible.
Rights or standards? Fung, O'Rourke, and Sabel propose using
labor standards of varying stringencies to "secure the most ambitious
feasible labor standards for workers given their economic development
context … without imposing a uniform, and potentially protectionist,
standard upon diverse contexts." My own view is that the only way to
avoid charges of protectionism is not to rely exclusively on diverse
and flexible standards but to have uniform rights that should be recognized
whatever the context. In the 1980s, groups such as the International
Labor Rights Fund sought to specify the relevant rights: they studied
seventy years of International Labor Organization (ILO) deliberations
during which employees, worker representatives, and governments negotiated
over one hundred international conventions on labor. From these conventions,
the Fund culled a list of six internationally agreed-upon core worker
rights, including freedom of association and the right to collective
bargaining. Using these basic labor rights avoids a major pitfall: having
to determine which standards are appropriate for which corporations
or which levels of development—a potentially messy judgment call.
Northern-based codes of conduct versus grassroots union activism?
The other benefit of using core rights is that it clearly delineates
a role for international solidarity and oversight through the RLS or
any other mechanism that does not attempt to usurp the role of unions.
This is not a frivolous concern: I once heard Kathie Lee Gifford say
that the factories at which her signature line of clothes were made
had to follow her code of conduct and therefore there was no need for
unions. We should be pushing for freedom of association, for example,
through codes of conduct and subsequent monitoring. But once that core
labor right exists in a country, we should recognize that it is the
role of unions to use their power (with international support, if requested)
to ratchet up standards—to organize for higher wages, expanded
benefits, etc. In this way, codes of conduct can support the growth
and power of unions, but they cannot and should not be seen as a substitute
for unions, in China or elsewhere.
Environment or labor? Is a labor code enough? Interestingly
enough, the authors—at least some of whom have environmental expertise—focus
on a labor code of conduct. And, indeed, the work on corporate codes
of conduct thus far has been far too split with work on labor issues,
on one hand, and separate work on environmental issues. The challenge,
however, is to merge the two. In my view, work on advancing labor rights
and standards through corporate codes is the more advanced of the two,
given the existence of ILO-delineated core labor rights. We need a multilateral
effort to delineate core environmental rights such as the "right to
know." And then the challenge is for proposals and campaigns to more
consistently merge social and environmental issues.
Who should be the umpire? Do we really want to give the World
Bank new life—and an expanded mission—given its poor performance
in reducing the economic, environmental, and social havoc that its loans
often leave in their wake? Many of our allies in the campaign to change
the global economy have spent decades campaigning against the World
Bank; we will lose these groups and individuals (especially in the Third
World) as supporters of broader corporate accountability if we disparage
their decades of work. If we need a global umpire, I suggest we look
not to the Bank, but instead to a reformed United Nations (including
the ILO), which is potentially the most egalitarian of the international
Regulatory or voluntary? A major test of a proposal is its ability
to move beyond "easier" countries and "better" companies in "easier"
sectors. Thus far, the momentum for codes of conduct, for example, has
largely been in the apparel, footwear, and toy sectors, and the codes
focus primarily on sweatshop conditions. Campaigns that target corporations
with some claim to social responsibility (e.g., Nike, Gap, Levi-Strauss,
Starbucks) have been more successful in engaging the company. As the
authors suggest, the reality is that the somewhat more socially responsible
firms have been targeted since they are more likely to engage. This
has led to the current, arguably perverse, situation in which the more
responsible (but hardly perfect) companies have "voluntary" codes and
thus are more vulnerable to criticism for noncompliance while the more
egregious companies without codes have been more likely to escape unscathed.
This trap seems inherent to almost any voluntary initiative.
How can the RLS proposal be implemented without falling into this trap?
The authors suggest some vague regulation; but it is not clear how firms
would be "required" to participate, nor how "sanctions" would work.
In fact, the authors allude to weak regulations at best when they say
that the World Bank might be willing to participate because it "may
see the RLS as a lesser evil to the imposition of a social clause."
By whose authority are the RLS requirements set? Are firm-level incentives
really enough to set off a "race to the top"? In addition, there is
the "brand-name" recognition problem: How will voluntary attempts ever,
for example, expand into sectors with no brand-name recognition, such
as automobile parts or paperclips?
Yes, we should work on making a better mousetrap in terms of voluntary
schemes—and this may be as far as we can hope to get during Bush
II. In the end, though, voluntary codes will be most effective if they
help stimulate stronger international regulations such as social clauses,
and vice versa.
So, Fung, O'Rourke, and Sabel have started an excellent dialogue. I
now look forward to the next round of debate. This is the time for those
of us who support more environmentally and socially responsible globalization
to work together against a common enemy: corporate-led globalization.
Robin Broad, professor of Third World development at American
University, is author of Unequal
Alliance: The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the
Read all eight
responses to "Realizing Labor Standards," by Archon Fung, Dara
O'Rourke, and Charles Sabel.