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Labor Rights Need a Strong State


A crucial point from Michael Hobbes’s longform about how ethical consumerism can’t stop labor exploitation:

Yet this is how we expect to bring about better labor conditions in poor countries. Instead of empowering domestic agencies with a mandate to prevent abuses, we rely on international corporations seeking to insulate themselves from bad publicity.

Nearly all of the horror stories that show up in consumer campaigns are illegal in the countries where they take place. These countries simply don’t have anyone to enforce the laws. Bangladesh has just 125 labor inspectors for 75 million workers. Cambodian inspectors, on average, earn less than half as much as the garment workers whose conditions they’re supposed to be safeguarding. Uganda, with 40 million people, has only 120 practitioners capable of carrying out environmental impact assessments. In Burma, regional governments have received more than 6,000 complaints related to land revocations, but have investigated fewer than 300 of them.

That’s why Brazil is so startling. It has 10,000 public prosecutors and 3,000 inspectors, all making monthly salaries of at least $5,000. The inspectors collaborate with other government agencies, workers, unions and NGOs, not just to find the most outrageous violations, but to actually fix them.

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  • Bruce Vail

    Hmm…this post looks an awful lot like an endorsement of defacing public monuments. Or am I reading too much into it?

    • Bruce Vail

      oops, wrong post.

      • (troll impersonating) Malaclypse

        You leave dumbprints, sweetie.

    • Racist troll


  • Rudolph Schnaubelt

    Or a grassroots worldwide labour movement. A functional IWW.

    When do we realize the same exploitation of labour is occurring in Bangladesh sweatshops and Papa John’s wage theft stores.

    We now have an international capitalist class which is united in its effort to siphon off all the surplus value from workers while keeping labour politically powerless. The oligarchs keep the workers desperate and disunited.

    • Dick Manley

      Yes call it fifth international, nothing could possibly go wrong.

      • Manny Kant

        I want to be a supporter of a Sixth International, on the grounds that supporters of the Fifth International are such pathetic parodies of leftist fringe movements that they’ve tainted the whole concept, and we need to start afresh.

    • Racist Troll

      More of the same.

  • IM

    And now to something totally different:

    How do you translate klammheimliche Freude into english?

    • Bill Murray

      finding someone that knows German?

      • IM

        Too much of an insider joke, I admit that.

        • IM

          wrong thread, too.


      • Democrat Party Platform

        Abolition of Property in Land and Application of all Rents of Land to Public Purpose.

        A Heavy Progressive or Graduated Income Tax.

        Abolition of All Rights of Inheritance.

        Confiscation of the Property of All Emigrants and Rebels.

        Centralization of Credit in the Hands of the State, by Means of a National Bank with State Capital and an Exclusive Monopoly.

        Centralization of the Means of Communication and Transport in the Hands of the State.

        Extension of Factories and Instruments of Production Owned by the State, the Bringing Into Cultivation of Waste Lands, and the Improvement of the Soil Generally in Accordance with a Common Plan.

        Equal Liability of All to Labor. Establishment of Industrial Armies, Especially for Agriculture.

        Combination of Agriculture with Manufacturing Industries; Gradual Abolition of the Distinction Between Town and Country by a More Equable Distribution of the Population over the Country.

        Free Education for All Children in Public Schools. Abolition of Children’s Factory Labor in it’s Present Form. Combination of Education with Industrial Production.

        • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim den Sidste

          Golly, that sounds an awful lot like life under Social Democracy in Denmark.

          Which, as I remember it, involved something like 40% of the work force employed by the government to check around and make sure that things were working as expected. Representatives would show up and ask the women if they were being mistreated, they would show up and ask foreign workers if they were having any difficulties…

          I never saw anything untoward or experienced any difficulties myself, but it was great to know that the machinery was in place and well oiled should there be a problem.

          Quite unlike my experience working in America, where I could tell some stories that would curl your hair.

    • wjts

      Something like “secret pleasure” or “secret joy”. Why?

      • racist troll

        I’ve got nothing.

  • MacK

    A simple way of understanding how consumer boycotts fail. Let’s assume you are aware, you have a commitment to justice, etc.

    Ask yourself, what did you buy today? Now walk through the buying process for every item – did you read the label? Did you look for the “made in ….”? Did you look for “fair-trade”? Did you do it for everything? Every little thing?

    Off the cuff – can you name the Georgia Pacific Brands? How about Invista? Are there any in your house? In your closet? I can’t stand the Koch brothers and I have to say, now that I look at it I see a couple of brands I did not know of.

    Do you know about all the boycotts – have you had a chance to assess them?

    Even those who care find it hard to reliably boycott a pair as odious as the Koch brothers.

    • King Goat

      Yes. There’s so many corporations out there up to so much bad, and then there are subsidiaries and mergers and name changes and so on. It’s near impossible to really keep on top of it (though of course one should try).

      • troll

        I’ve got nothing.

    • Joe_JP

      I brought this up before but what you need is some sort of app that reads bar codes or something for easy processing. I think they have it, e.g., to find certain vegan products.

      • Jed

        There is this thing on my phone called “Buycott”. I never use it, but do always see it with guilt. I think they don’t have enough info in their database to make it work.

        • Joe_JP

          with modern techniques, should be a way to have the info and constantly updated information for it to work … I hope someone is working on the idea

          • racist troll


        • indefinitelee

          the way buycott works is not ideal. You have to join a “campaign” which, I believe, is a user defined list of products to avoid for whichever cause.
          So there are about 32 “Boycott Koch industries” groups and you have to hope that someone assigned all the correct brands to it.

      • racist troll

        copy pasta

    • LeeEsq

      Another reason they fail is that there always going to be millions of potential consumers that do not care.

    • LeeEsq

      Another reason they fail is that there always going to be millions of potential consumers that do not care.

    • LWA

      But this is the weakness of voluntary buycotts- No one would ever suggest that for example, patents and intellectual property be defended by purely voluntary means- that people could easily download music for free, but that we mount a campaign to shame people into buying it retail.

      No, the RCAA has no qualms about using the coercive power of government to enforce its interests. So why is it a problem when workers band together and use government to enforce theirs?

      TNC has done a great job in demonstrating that slavery and worker exploitation is not a matter of etiquette- it is theft, stealing something.

      • xq

        No one would ever suggest that for example, patents and intellectual property be defended by purely voluntary means- that people could easily download music for free, but that we mount a campaign to shame people into buying it retail

        People do actually suggest this all the time with respect to copyright infringement, because the government is powerless to stop piracy. I would link, but you can just google keywords “shaming” and “piracy” to get lots of examples.

        (It’s true that RIAA has some means of using coercive government power to enforce its IP, but these are not effective, which is why people advocate shaming campaigns. There are also ineffective government regulations against worker exploitation)

        • LWA

          When a store gets burgled or vandalized, when a song is used in a commercial without consent, no one uses that as evidence that property laws can’t work; instead the answer is greater enforcement, which is what Scott is getting at.

          Theft of property= A Crime.

          Theft of labor= A poor negotiating position;
          A deep complex problem which no one can really understand;
          Which actually lifts people out of poverty #slatepitch;
          Besides it will fix itself when people in Cameroon get robot butlers and 3D printers and government stops requiring barber’s licenses

    • MacK

      I’ll add that there are always some bullshit boycotts too

  • LeeEsq

    I think that a lot of people try to be ethical consumers because it is something that they can do even if it is ineffectual. Countries like Cambodia, Burma, and Bangladesh are not going to get an effective state anytime soon and individuals in the West are powerless to do anything about this. Your first going to have to establish enough democracy and state effectiveness to make regulation possible. Than your going to need an electorate favorably disposed to state regulation of labor and environmental conditions, the United States demonstrates that this isn’t a given.

    • Brett


      That long-form piece made me more pessimistic about the possibilities of reigning in the abuses that Erik points out. It’s not enough just to lean hard on US multinationals with laws and state inspections – we’ll need countries like China, India, and South Korea to start giving more of a shit about ethical sourcing, which seems rather difficult.

      I mean, what’s the US going to do otherwise – threaten to not sign trade treaties with them? We’re already trading with them outside of TPP, and there’s no way the US is going to put trade fairness concerns above geopolitical ones barring some massive shift back home in favor of reigning in abuses abroad (which can happen, but is rare – think anti-slavery in Britain).

      • Ahuitzotl

        The only feasible* way of influencing those countries is to incentivize the US multinationals to lean on them, I think.

        * for very generous values of feasible

  • sonamib

    In Cambodia, a group of South Korean intermediaries, all of them with names you’ve never heard, are backing a lawsuit against their own workers, demanding that they pay back $200 million in revenue the companies lost during a strike.

    I’m quoting this because WTF. Those corporations think their workers owe them their labour? Even if they’re on strike, and presumably not getting paid? Wow, it’s like they think they own their workers.

    • Rugosa

      Why, yes, they do feel entitled to the labor of others. That’s why slavery has always existed, why Papa John steals wages, and why right-to-work laws get passed.

  • xq

    That’s why Brazil is so startling.

    Is it really so startling?

    GDP per capita:

    Brazil: 11,208
    Uganda: 572
    Cambodia: 1,007
    Burma: 1,200
    Bangladesh: 958

    Brazil is vastly richer than the countries Hobbes compares it to. You can’t just say Brazil is poorer than the US/Europe, therefore all poor countries can follow its model. Brazil is a middle income country with vastly more resources. You get a strong state by having a strong economy that generates high tax revenues that can be used to pay a bureaucracy that can enforce laws.

    The main message I get from Hobbes’s article is that economic growth is the only way to substantially improve global labor standards (which isn’t to say there aren’t modest improvements that can be made through policy and are worth fighting for).

  • LWA

    I have to keep pointing out that the objections to a global agreement on minimum wage and workplace safety are invariably that it is impossible, too hard and the world too complex for such things.

    Yet a global agreement on enforcing patents, contracts, insuring of property and adjudicating disputes and providing for redress is not only possible but forms the basis for our entire commercial world.

    The workers would be better off if they were actually property- because property at least can legally be defended.

  • Dick Manley

    Yes a big government is sure to protect freedom look at Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, they both had lots of freedom!

    • DrDick

      By contrast, look at Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where they have no functional government. Libertarians are idiots.

      • cpinva

        I don’t think he even qualifies as a libertarian, just an idiot.

    • cpinva

      have some pancakes and syrup with that whine.

  • Origami Isopod

    So much point-missing in the HuffPo comments. It’s all people scolding one another about where they shop and bragging about their thrift-store habits. Plus the usual handful of apologists for corpocracy.

  • Brett

    The essay actually made me more depressed about the possibility of reigning in labor and environmental abuses abroad. Just reigning in US companies won’t do much anymore, because you have to convince the rising Asian countries (plus other developing countries) to really want to get on board with this – and even then, it all requires strong domestic enforcement in the countries where the production is located at, otherwise you just end up back in the game of Inspector Dodge. Brazil only pulled it off in that example because they went for it domestically.

    I guess that means Students Against Sweatshops actually lost the war while winning a battle. They got brands to change things up, but never translated those wins into any broader political campaign to try and at least require US companies to abide by ethical sourcing requirements.

  • ijkcomputer

    The importance of governments for policing is certainly true. Not sure, though, that I buy all the stuff in the article about how large apparel corporations can’t possibly make their own goods, or structure their operations such that they could know and monitor who makes them, because something something economics.

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