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Governing Global Garment Production (Pt. 2)

In my last post, I argued that the two Bangladesh fire and safety agreements reflect the failures of existing legal regimes, both public and private. The agreements intend to impose some basic standards on the Bangladeshi garment industry; rather than competing (almost) entirely on the basis of cost, as existing law encourages them to do, brands will collaborate to ensure that suppliers’ factories are safe. In this post, I’ll defend the Accord (signed between most major European brands and various unions) as substantively preferable to the Alliance (an agreement among U.S. brands), because the Accord has the potential to reshape the political economy of global garment production and governance.

To see why, note that both agreements invite a question common in the sociology of law: what explains the emergence of particular legal regimes at particular times? As Professor Alan Hyde has pointed out, this question is surprisingly understudied in the international labor field. Hyde proposes that transnational labor governance institutions emerge to solve coordination problems when all participants “would gain by cooperation but will be disadvantaged if their rivals defect.” That theory has some traction here. Nations have a common interest in minimizing child labor, but no nation can do so alone; brands have a common interest in ensuring minimally safe factories, but must cooperate to do so. Once the failures of existing governance regimes became clear after the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions disasters, brands needed a new system. So they built one.

But such an account is incomplete—as Hyde would surely agree—for it disregards the need for a prime mover to build trust among disparate actors. I’ve addressed this question in the context of domestic labor organizing, arguing that organizers actively shape workers’ preferences and build solidarity, in part by creating moral crises (read: strikes) in which workers rely on each other out of necessity. As it turns out, unions and workers’ rights NGOs played a central role in the shaping of the Accord, and then, by extension, the Alliance.

The Workers’ Rights Consortium and other unions and NGOs have long argued that that the solution to basic standards noncompliance in the garment sector lay in binding commitments by brands to ensure safe factories and to pay more for garments. Indeed, as I understand, the basic terms of the Accord had been drafted well before the 2012-13 disasters, but the unions were unable to press enough brands to sign on until after those disasters.

This echoes Richard Locke and the NYU Stern School’s diagnosis of the problem, as discussed in the prior post: brands’ practices need to change for supplier working conditions to change. But the WRC and the unions’ approach differs from Locke’s and the Stern School’s. Locke argues that states should step in to regulate labor standards, especially freedom of association, while the Stern School proposes collaboration among the state, the Alliance and Accord, and other actors in Bangladesh to ensure safety. But neither Locke nor the Stern School considers in detail what political and institutional arrangements would make that collaboration possible.

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