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Richard Locke brings to light many of the challenges associated with private governance and capability-building initiatives. The demands of contemporary global production create obstacles even for multinational firms genuinely concerned about labor conditions and labor rights. While firm-level governance may be part of the solution, the protection of workers’ rights requires collaboration with national government authorities and perhaps across national boundaries. Indeed, Locke’s essay is yet another reminder that, contrary to the “world is flat” narrative, government actors and policies still have important roles to play.
Under what conditions, then, might we expect governments to work collaboratively and flexibly with companies that want to protect workers’ rights? Where the electorate includes a broad swath of working-class citizens, governments are more likely to attend to their concerns. And where transnational advocacy groups have the capacity to operate freely, they can publicize global norms and standards—including those stemming from International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions—and hold firms accountable for supply chain problems. We know that democratic governments are, all else equal, associated with better protections for workers. And those governments will be particularly inclined to protect workers if organized labor groups offer real representation for workers’ interests. But workers in new democracies can’t always count on legacy unions, which tend to be elite-driven.
Therefore, improving working conditions often requires economy-wide change. Governments must have incentives to reform their domestic laws and to ensure that laws are enforced. Their incentives are stronger where independent labor unions serve as effective civil society participants. Hence, collective labor rights may be an important part of improving individual working conditions. Here, Locke’s argument about the limits of efforts by individual multinational firms rings true: it is not enough for corporations to allow or require collective labor organization at their subsidiaries or suppliers. Those companies also should press host-country governments to enable freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Companies should press host-country governments to enable freedom of association and collective bargaining.
In addition, pressures from abroad can encourage national governments to protect labor rights throughout their economies. My colleagues and I have found evidence for the diffusion of labor laws via trade relationships: collective labor rights in low- and middle-income countries are influenced by the labor laws of their major trading partners. The more a country trades with labor-protecting economies, the better its labor laws become. This effect also can go in the opposite direction, however: if one’s trade partners have weak labor protections, labor rights are likely to deteriorate over time. Recent research suggests that when low-income countries shift from exporting commodities to Western markets and instead focus on shipping to China and India, their regard for labor standards diminishes. Therefore governments in North America, Europe, and beyond can promote labor rights abroad by ensuring the protection of those rights at home.
Moreover, trade agreements under the United States’ Generalized System of Preferences offer opportunities for linking an exporter’s market access with the treatment of its workers. Certainly, there is reason for cynicism about the aims of these agreements: the inclusion of some form of labor-rights requirements in all U.S. trade agreements since 1984 was likely an attempt to mollify American labor unions rather than the product of real concern for workers’ rights abroad. Yet the inclusion of labor-related conditions in such trade instruments nonetheless could provide openings for savvy activists to bring additional pressure to bear on foreign governments. Likewise, the United States has recently revised its model bilateral investment treaty—which governs direct investment in and by partner countries—to include labor conditions, possibly offering another means of linking economic exchange with workers’ well-being.
Finally, many would argue that individuals, no matter where they live or work, ought to have certain basic rights and opportunities, such as the core labor rights expressed in the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Beyond those—which include freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and freedom from employment discrimination—many would add protection from health-and-safety risks and from excessive working hours. The factory audits Locke discusses allow us to consider how well several multinational firms do at providing such rights across a variety of locations and over time.
But these audits do not tell us about conditions elsewhere in an economy. Workers who are not hired by globally involved suppliers and subcontractors may face more precarious, informal, and unregulated employment. I suspect that, for such individuals, labor conditions are often more difficult and hazardous. This is not to suggest that we ought to abandon efforts to improve conditions in global supply chains, but rather to point out that we know even less about how to improve conditions for workers disconnected from the global economy. Where the spotlight of corporate social responsibility does not shine, the contribution of governmental actors—both national and international—is likely even more important.
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