The proposal for "Ratcheting Labor Standards" (RLS) is a sophisticated
elaboration of trends in corporate codes of conduct and private monitoring
of workplaces that have developed over the past decade. It would certainly
strengthen such monitoring, which has played a problematic but important
role in the development of a global movement against sweatshops, and
could improve some working conditions.
But ultimately the proposal steers that movement in the wrong direction.
It builds on current conditions, which reflect the weakness in this
era of globalization of the historic forces for improving workers' conditions—labor
unions and state regulation. There is an important role for consumer
pressure, pressure from nongovernmental organizations, and even independent
monitoring, but it should be to strengthen unions and governmental regulation,
not replace them with what ultimately would be a relatively weak, inadequate,
and privatized regulatory system.
Fung, O'Rourke, and Sabel argue that a new system of regulation is
needed because of problems with uniform standards (which they automatically
but unjustifiably link to protectionism) and because the nature of production
has changed, with decentralized global chains of production extending
into the informal sector. But some uniform standards are legitimate,
whatever the level of development. Certainly core International Labor
Organization (ILO) standards of the right to organize and prohibition
of child or forced labor or racial discrimination are relatively uniform
and not protectionist—despite gripes from some politicians in
developing countries. Does prohibition of exposure to toxic workplace
chemicals have to await a higher level of economic development?
Wages should in some way reflect the development of a country, but
a requirement that countries enforce reasonable minimum or living wage
standards based on their development would not be protectionist. In
any case, the companies in question are not struggling efforts run by
entrepreneurs in poor countries hoping to break into a world market.
These are operations run by major multinationals, like Nike, based in
countries with a very high standard of development that are taking advantage
of desperate workers in poor countries. If, as they claim, they are
raising living standards in those countries, they can be held to higher
standards than domestic industries in those countries. They can afford
to pay for higher standards and so can their customers.
Who sets the standards? The authors suggest that firms "would be required
to adopt a code of conduct"—but what code? And who would do the
requiring? Individual governments could both require and set such standards—like
adherence to core labor rights—as the basis for imports, but that
would run up against World Trade Organization prohibitions on regulating
production methods. The alternative is to make basic labor standards
integral to international law and institutions governing trade and to
strengthen institutions, such as the ILO. Even the Organization for
Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) could develop mandatory codes
of conduct for multinationals based in OECD countries.
Although production and ownership of factories has become decentralized,
ultimate control over the global chain of production has become ever
more centralized. Consumers and governments may not know where every
part of every product they buy was made, but people who control corporations
do—or they can know if they want to. Indeed, the key to restoring
more traditional, effective regulation is to make those dominant corporations
legally responsible for every infraction of labor rights at every stage
of production, even if they are not the owner and direct employer in
every workplace. They do have the power to determine conditions of their
contractors and subcontractors. They should be required to make full
disclosure of their production chain—that is, to be fully "transparent"—and
they should be subject to meaningful penalties for all violations. Because
of the internal management systems they already have, as the authors
describe, they are capable of enforcing good standards. The authors'
reference to the "hot cargo" provisions of American law and the leverage
government gets through penalties on the ultimate controlling corporation
illustrates how it is possible to regulate global chains of production.
Any good global regulatory system should emphasize both transparency
and sanctions, as the authors propose. But there is reason to be skeptical
about their mechanisms of competition and continuous improvement. Ultimately,
they rely on "social and market pressures" as the power behind their
regulatory system, not the authority of the state (and the quasi-state
institutions on a global level) or the power of organized workers. They
imagine that social pressures will lead monitors and firms to compete
to ever-higher standards in order to appeal to ethical consumers. But
history suggests that monitors—like today's financial auditors—will
feel strong pressure to collaborate with businesses that employ them
and that corporations will be motivated to do only what little they
must in order to avoid bad publicity. (There are also many industries
that are not very vulnerable to ethical consumer pressures.) If Fung,
O'Rourke, and Sabel truly believed their model, they would not endorse
any kind of governmental regulatory system—which is precisely
what conservatives in this country want by dismantling occupational
safety and health, environmental, and other enforcement, though not
because they expect an ever-rising standard for corporate conduct.
Social and market pressures can be valuable, but there are limits to
the power of the ethical consumer, even one who is fully informed by
a new monitoring system. In any case, both workers in unions and ethical
consumers would gain power by cooperating, not by posing as alternatives.
Despite the authors insistence on listening to workers' views (who will
be listening and deciding?), it is disconcerting that they think that
unions, as an afterthought, might compete with nongovernmental monitors
to see who does the better job. Shouldn't workers, as a matter of fundamental
right, be actively supported in organizing themselves? If a monitor
finds that the union isn't succeeding, workers can use the monitor's
information to strengthen their hand in dealing with their employer.
There may be a role for nongovernmental organizations and independent
monitors, but it is as a way of moving toward and then strengthening
real protections of worker interests through governmental regulation
and unions, not by creating a privatized, weak system that would take
their place. •
David Moberg is senior editor of In
These Times and a fellow of the Nation Institute.
Read all eight
responses to "Realizing Labor Standards," by Archon Fung, Dara
O'Rourke, and Charles Sabel.