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Holding Corporations Accountable

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sweatshop

I have a piece up at In These Times that discusses some of the ideas I develop in Out of Sight in how to hold corporations accountable for the ecological and labor exploitation of the world no matter where they move.

The only way workers like the 11-year-old boy in Ghatkopar will see their lives improve is if we demand global standards on production with real legal consequences for companies who violate them. The contracting system that creates layers of separation between multinational corporations and workers serves to increase exploitation and profits. It also makes it much harder for consumers in the U.S. and other countries to demand products are produced ethically, for two principle reasons.

First, unlike the Triangle Fire, where reforms of working conditions happened because Americans saw workers die making their clothes, we cannot see the lives of Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans who die making ours. Second, because these corporations lack legal liability for their production, they can claim they know nothing about the working conditions of their suppliers. If Walmart, Target or Gap buy these zippers, do they even know it? When these companies have been busted for using sweatshop labor, they frequently claim that they had no production contracts there. Given the byzantine mazes of contracting these companies do, they may be telling the truth. But a lack of public accounting means we cannot know.

Whether at Bhopal or a zipper sweatshop, multinational corporations need to be held accountable for what happens where they site factories or contract their production. Keeping clear records that show where their clothes are actually produced should be their responsibility.

Specifically, we need to create legal accountability for corporations. Voluntary agreements are basically meaningless—enforcement with consequences is necessary. We need international labor standards that companies must comply with if they want to sell their products in the United States. Workers should have the right to sue in American courts when American companies violate basic standards of labor rights.

If Walmart or Gap wants to contract production to Bangladesh or India, that’s fine. But if their factory collapses or if workers are subjected to slave labor, the American companies using those zippers need to be held legally accountable. Subcontracting cannot be a tool to exploit the world’s poor. We must articulate new ways of holding corporations accountable if we are ever to stop this exploitation.

We are very far from such a system being implemented today. Vicious corporate attacks on organized labor in the United States mean that we are desperately trying to hold on to what labor rights we have left in this country. But those rights have collapsed in part because of the export of union jobs offshore, undermining the best tool American workers have for maintaining a dignified life.

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