Over the last year, the terrible working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories have made headlines around the world. The Tazreen Factory fire, in which more than a hundred people were killed, was followed quickly by the collapse of another factory at Rana Plaza, a catastrophe that killed more than 1,100 workers. Responses by Western corporations that did business with these factories have received as much coverage as the crises themselves. European apparel companies created one agreement that places real responsibility on corporations, while American companies created another that imposes no obligations on corporations. The back and forth between advocates of these approaches has absorbed most of the media’s attention.
But behind the scenes of this controversy, a much more important program was implemented to improve labor conditions in Bangladesh. This program is called Better Work. Jointly run by the International Labor Organization and the World Bank, Better Work is at the leading edge of international labor rights. Launched in 2007, it now has programs in seven countries: Cambodia, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, Lesotho, Nicaragua and Vietnam; Bangladesh will be the eighth. Better Work’s focus is solely on the apparel industry, but its impact is significant because textiles account for a huge portion of nonagricultural work in these countries.
The most important piece of the program is its replication of European social democracy in developing countries. It achieves this by negotiating a grand bargain on labor rights among the government, business associations and labor unions in each country. The value of this dialogue among groups cannot be overstated. In some countries, these groups have always been at odds with one another, and constructive social dialogue has simply never existed. By bringing all the actors to one table and incentivizing negotiations, Better Work changes the political culture of a country. Once the initial bargain is signed by all parties, annual or semiannual meetings bring these groups back to the table again and again, thus institutionalizing a culture of dialogue and cooperation.
Once Better Work has done the work on this grand bargain, it begins its day-to-day operations. Its staff assess the labor standards in apparel factories using a detailed checklist covering issues of child labor, health and safety, racial or gender discrimination, wages and freedom of association. But — crucially — Better Work does not use this assessment to punish factories with low scores. Rather, it helps factories improve their scores by providing training and supervisory services. By assuming that factories want to improve and by providing assistance, factories will hopefully view Better Work as a partner and not as an adversary.
This approach is more effective than a punitive model in which monitors attempt to uncover abuses and then punish factories. As one expert put it: “The ‘cops-and-robbers’ mentality fundamentally does not work. Factories just end up hiding their problems and denying any wrongdoing until it is too late.”
Better Work is also supposed to improve freedom of association for workers. This is a core labor right and a pillar of the International Labor Organization, but this is also a politically sensitive issue. In many countries, business leaders and their allies in government fear labor unions — some countries even make independent unions illegal. Businesses worry that unions will use their bargaining power to extract excessive demands from employers, that they will use violence to gain their ends and that they are a front for organized crime. Political leaders, meanwhile, see no benefit in supporting unions that may oppose them. Better Work’s record on improving freedom of association is mixed; the program lacks the power to force political change in its host countries, and so the attitudes of government and business leaders often dictate the limits of Better Work’s activities.
Multinational corporations also play a role in Better Work by encouraging their suppliers to cooperate. These corporations fear that their brand will be tarnished by poor working conditions, and they know that labor unrest and political instability threaten the smooth functioning of their supply chains. But their support of Better Work often conflicts with their desire to have clothing made faster and cheaper, so the ultimate effect of multinationals remains in question.
Of course, the program faces many challenges in Bangladesh. The country has a large informal economy where labor conditions are far worse than those at apparel factories. Factory owners have become experts at secretly contracting out dangerous activities to the informal economy while improving the appearance of their factories. Government institutions are completely dysfunctional; inspectors usually turn a blind eye to labor-rights abuses and safety violations, often for bribes. And in the political realm, a major fight is brewing between the political incumbents and their main challengers. With elections scheduled for early January, political violence may cripple the country in the next few weeks.
But with crisis comes opportunity. Better Work’s operations in other countries have proven that the program can be effective, but other countries have also shown that Better Work functions only when local power groups do not oppose it. Hopefully, by providing a platform for social dialogue among employers, labor unions and the government, Better Work could be part of a lasting solution to political instability and economic uncertainty in Bangladesh.
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Paul Alois is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the City University of New York and an adjunct professor at Baruch College. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and formerly worked for the World Bank.