Saturday, December 8, 2012

Sweatshop Realities

The New York Times has an interesting story today on the failure of social responsibility monitoring to prevent catastrophes like the garment factory fire that killed between 260-310 workers in Karachi a few months ago.  The factory was a death trap, with blocked exits, grills over the windows, and heaps of combustible material everywhere, yet it had been certified as meeting the highest standards set by Social Accountability International, a global industry-funded organization.

Incidentally, no one knows exactly how many workers died because they were off the books.  The lack of formal employment relations is typical of sweatshops and apparently not an impediment to getting the imprimatur of social responsibility from industry monitors.

Those with a taste for irony will appreciate that Social Accountability International defends itself on the grounds that they did not do the inspections themselves.  No, this work was subcontracted to an Italian monitoring group, which in turn outsourced the actual field investigation, such as it was, to a shop in Pakistan.  So it turns out that the social responsibility industry has a supply chain problem too.  How can SAI protect its brand while avoiding the messy and costly frontline work of actually doing the inspections themselves?

The core problem is obvious to anyone who looks past the propaganda and examines the situation objectively: the industries that depend on cheap, reliable inputs from their global sourcing operations are the principals and the monitors are the agents.  The branded garment producers want to protect their image, but they also want to keep their costs down.  (This is a ruthlessly competitive sector, after all.)  Their incentive is to generate the best possible set of appearances for consumers at minimum actual expense in terms of compensating workers and upgrading working conditions.  Anyone they hire to manage the social responsibility apparatus will be engaged on terms that transmit these incentives down the SR supply chain.

The fundamental problem is that the system is accountable to the wrong principal.  It is the workers in this industry who ought to be the ones accreditors must satisfy.  That, of course, requires worker organization like independent unions, something neither the companies nor the governments in export platform countries like Pakistan are eager to embrace.  In the end, however, that is the only path to truly responsible production systems.  As long as monitoring is for the companies, there will be loopholes, gaps and dark corners; workers will not complain for fear of losing their jobs.  The indispensable inspectors are the workers themselves, who are in the right place with the right incentives to determine whether conditions are adequate or not.

One final point: the story quotes Alice Tepper Marlin, the founder of SAI, making the stock defense of sweatshops.
“This type of trade and development has played an important role in bringing people out of poverty,” she said. “Do we really want to say that we should move away from it because there are some factories with problems?”
This argument is trotted out every time a workplace disaster occurs, or stories are written about 60 hour workweeks at subsistence pay.  It is always presented as a new insight, something the critics must not have considered.  But it is a red herring.  The same argument was used in the US at the time of the Triangle fire, where the victims were impoverished immigrants trying to get their first morsel of economic opportunity.  Aren’t any jobs, even dangerous ones, better than none it all?  But that was not the choice, either then or now.

The question is not whether global production systems can extend to developing countries, providing jobs for those who need them, but under what standard those systems will operate.  The alternative to a fire trap in Karachi is not protectionism in the US, but enough worker voice in Pakistan to ensure that production in that country meets the standards of fundamental human decency.

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