The Oxford Martin School Blog
Global labour standards - how can they be improved?
19 Nov 2010 0 comment(s)
Professor Tim Bartley of Indiana University delivered the penultimate seminar of our Certification and Sustainability series, with a talk yesterday on global labour standards. He outlined some achievements from the last decade, and gave his thoughts on how we can continue to improve working conditions around the world.
Starting in the early 1990s, international companies were increasingly 'named and shamed' by European and North American activists, who exposed layers of unregulated and abusive subcontracting. Although firms initially denied or downplayed these accusations, by 2000 all major brands had written codes of conduct and working standards, even corporations that had not been targeted by activists. It was the start of transnational private regulation, designed to transcend and bypass ineffective states. These codes of conduct have had noticeable impact on international labour standards. Compared to twenty years ago, all over the world there are better health and safety rules, more formalised HR systems, less use of dangerous chemicals, and less reported employee abuse.
But there are still major barriers to implementing working standards. Certification schemes and codes of conduct are only as effective as a government's enforcement of labour regulations. Professor Bartley pointed out that many of us in the global North have a perception that some countries simply do not have labour laws, and think that firms in these places are free to operate at whatever standards they choose. This is not the case. Every country, he said, has passed labour laws, and they are often written even more stringently than those in our own countries. In many places, however, these laws are not well enforced. He ended his talk emphasising this, that international firms should scale back their own claims on standards and focus on legal compliance of laws that already exist in the countries they operate in. At the moment the bar is set very low, he said, separating only the worst-behaved firms from the rest. Strengthening the connection between private industry and governments might challenge firms to become better, rather than just acceptable.
The evening's discussant, Dr Pamela Robinson of Birmingham University, brought some perspective as a former commercial buyer. In her experience, activists had been very effective at pressuring firms to implement codes of conduct, but enforcing these locally was much more complicated, even with employees themselves. Workers often saw many standards that we consider essential, such as labour unions, as Northern impositions. While government plays an important role, she felt that the most effective way to better empower workers was to share more of the profit down the supply chain, and just simply pay them more.
The audience was eager to know exactly how labour standards affect workers. For instance, who can be trusted to enforce these standards? Professor Bartley and Dr Robinson agreed that the current system of auditing was inherently flawed and plagued by corruption, with Dr Robinson reiterating her belief that resources would be better placed by increasing workers' pay. And what about when abuse is discovered? Firms will often abruptly cut off their partnership with the subcontractor, leaving workers unemployed. Professor Bartley acknowledged that this was a complicated problem, but stressed again that avoiding abuse means enforcing local laws, and we as consumers have the power to demand that this is done. He dismissed the idea that our involvement in the employment regulations of other countries might be interpreted as foreign imposition, reminding us that every country has passed these laws. A nation's compliance to their own laws, he said, is therefore not an external imposition.
Our final seminar in the series will be next week, with Professor Timothy Sinclair discussing evaluating credit rating agencies in light of the economic crisis.