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Labor Rights Need a Strong State

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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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