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Governing Global Garment Production (Pt. I)

Again, I’m very happy to be guest-blogging at Co-op this month. For my next couple posts, I’d like to focus on the situation of garment production in Bangladesh, which raises fascinating issues of global governance.

About a year ago, major garment brands in the E.U. and U.S. announced separate and competing initiatives designed to prevent a recurrence of the horrific 2012-2013 Bangladesh factory disasters. The “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh” (“Accord”) was negotiated between various unions and most major European garment brands, as well as some American brands; the “Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety” (“Alliance”) was developed by U.S. brands, in particular Gap and Walmart, in conjunction with industry associations in Bangladesh. Under both, brands commit to source from Bangladesh for a period of time and to institute comprehensive systems of factory inspection and remediation.

A year in, the media has begun to report on tensions between the two groups around factory inspections, as well as other growing pains. A recent report from the NYU Stern School also criticized both agreements for doing too little to combat unauthorized subcontracting, arguing that their similarities outweigh their differences. While the press and academics should of course try to understand such tensions, and should point out each agreement’s structural weaknesses, I would argue that the Accord has transformative potential as compared to the Alliance. This point should not be lost in discussions.

In this post, I’ll outline the structural conditions that led to the agreements, and why they represent an important step forward in global labor standards protection. It is a sort of “explainer,” with apologies in advance to those already immersed in the details of the agreements. In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss the importance of the Accord in particular, arguing that it could be the template for a new global labor governance regime.

The agreements are best understood in the context of our existing system of global labor governance—which, in contrast to the binding and legalistic regimes governing trade and investment, is based almost entirely on “soft law.” The International Labor Organization (“ILO”) has enjoyed remarkable success in building normative consensus around its core labor standards—freedom of association and prohibitions on discrimination, child labor, and forced labor—yet it lacks basic enforcement capabilities, and those standards have no direct effect upon either nations or employers.

As a result, “hard-law” labor market regulations have been and remain largely the provenance of nation states. Yet many developing nations lack the political will either to regulate producers within their jurisdiction, and many wealthy nations lack the political will to impose binding duties on their multinationals. Moreover, the global investment regime creates strong disincentives for states to implement stringent labor regulations, lest they begin to appear hostile to investors.

Partially in response to this governance deficit, civil society organizations have long demanded that multinationals use their market power and internal regulatory capacity to ensure labor standards among their suppliers. Most have done so, adopting corporate social responsibility (CSR) codes that require suppliers to protect basic...

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