Mitigating Risks to Worker Safety
Trade unions and other advocates continue to face significant challenges in ensuring adherence to workplace rights. Many governments continue to hold to the view that enterprise and industry will go elsewhere if labour standards are enforced, due to the costs involved. And too many international brands maintain old business models based on driving down prices, which result in significant risks for workers.
The scale of workplace abuses in a range of business sectors cannot be under estimated, and the ongoing challenge of protecting the most vulnerable workers is huge. The international focus tends to be on factories exporting to rich countries, but many more operate under the radar, including factories in rich countries.
Companies – both multinational brands and their contractors – have the responsibility to ensure their actions are in compliance with local laws and international standards. In the apparel industry, efforts to address poor factory conditions, including the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance developed in response to the Rana Plaza factory disaster are welcome steps but cover only one industry and area, with accidents and other abuses pervasive elsewhere and in many other sectors. Tragedies like Rana Plaza show three types of failure: the failure to inspect on the part of the state; the failure to maintain factories on the part of local manufacturers; and the failure to monitor, on the part of foreign brands. These are compounded when unions are weak, foreign brands are many and competing with one another, wages are low, states are more keen to attract investment, and consumers are concerned about price above all. Compensation is a form of remedy, and the Bangladeshi initiatives go some way towards bridging the gap. But much remains to be done.
As companies play a more active role in monitoring the conduct of their suppliers around the world, they will have to find new ways of influencing states unable or unwilling to enforce compliance with labour standards. That includes giving workers a greater voice in preventing and providing remedy for abuses. Customers who want cheap goods will need to face the reality that paying more for consumer goods is a key element in protecting worker rights.
More targeted efforts to improve worker safety and strengthen participation in resolving workplace problems must be a priority in the year ahead. In 2018, the international community must raise the level of ambition to ensure workers are protected.
Podcast with Sanchita Saxena of the University of California at Berkeley
Download Filetype: MP3 - Size: 11.01MB - Duration: 16:03 m (96 kbps 44100 Hz)