Improving Working Conditions in the Bangladeshi Apparel Sector: What Role for Labor?

Friday, June 24, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
639 Evans (Evans Hall)
Jette Steen Knudsen, Tufts University, Medford, MA
Does the organization of labor strengthen or weaken the impact of regulatory initiatives intended to improve working conditions in global supply chains?  During the 1990s a growing awareness emerged in advanced industrialized countries of sweatshops in developing countries. This awareness prompted a range of transnational initiatives and in particular company codes of conduct to improve labor standards (Gereffi and Sturgeon, 2005; Locke, 2013; Lund-Thomsen, 2014). Company codes of conduct have not prevented numerous factory building collapses, factory fires, or labor rights violations, including the beatings and sometimes even killings of labor union representatives, in supplier countries.  A wide range of alternative regulatory initiatives has emerged to make up for the inefficiencies of company codes of conduct focusing on improving working conditions (Bernstein, 2005; Bernstein and Cashore, 2007; Knudsen 2011; 2012; Kobrin, 2009). Examples include multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Better Work Program, international trade initiatives and new government regulation in developing countries as well as in advanced industrialized countries. Examples of new governmental approaches include revamped and more professionalized labor inspectorates in Latin America (Piore and Schrank, 2008; Schrank, 2009) and an appropriate mix of punitive and pedagogical inspection practices in Brazil (Pires, 2008).  Despite these regulatory initiatives to improve labor conditions, poor labor conditions still persist.  One reason could be that regulation excludes unions.  Local unions have generally been unable to leverage codes to influence working conditions in global supply chains (Riisgaard and Hammer, 2009). On the one hand the exclusion of labor is surprising because unions have been recognized in much of the labor literature from industrialized countries as key contributors to better working conditions through giving voice to labor (Budd, 2006), and factories with unions have been shown to have better working conditions because unionized establishments are more likely to receive safety and health inspections than comparable nonunion establishments (Weil, 1991).  On the other hand in many developing countries, the Achilles heel to union influence has been the mobility of capital (Anner, 2011) coupled with a domestic political system that is hostile to unions.  When unions have no political voice (Hirschman, 1970) they often resort to conflict (Rahman, 2014; 2004) ultimately worsening rather than improving working conditions.  This proposal draws together scholarship on the regulation of working conditions in global supply chains and on the organization of labor. Focusing on the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh, which has been particularly plagued by poor working conditions, this project shows how regulation impacts working conditions.  The paper’s main contribution is to highlight how the organization of labor constitutes a key intervening variable.  When labor is well organized and is “heard” by management (at least to some extent) regulation has a higher likelihood of leading to improved working conditions.