How price pressures lead to exploitation of workers | Workers’ rights

Your editorial (21 December) about Tesco’s garment supply chain is welcome, but the global garment production system of downward pressure on prices and labour costs, unreasonable lead times, subcontracting and denial of workers’ rights is neither news nor accidental. Global brands decided in the 1980s to move production from democracies that protected workers’ rights to dictatorships that didn’t.

A vast corporate social responsibility (CSR) and “social auditing” industry grew, but paternalism and snapshot workplace audits are no substitute for proper labour relations and public labour inspection, and the Rana Plaza factory disaster confirmed earlier research showing that much social auditing is technically incompetent.

The Guardian’s repeated application of “exploitation” as a moral rather than an economic category, however, weakens understanding: extracting profit from labour is the foundation of capitalist economies. In 1998, the declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work of the International Labour Organization clarified the obligations binding on its 187 member states to protect, respect and realise the rights to freedom from forced labour, child labour and discrimination at work and, above all, the rights to organise and bargain collectively, and their essential purpose: “to enable those concerned … to claim a fair share of the wealth they have helped to generate”. This year, occupational safety and health became the fifth category of these fundamental rights.

Most workers in the world are still denied those rights in law or practice. If businesses had not wasted decades and billions of dollars constructing CSR facades to protect their brand image and share value, but instead had invested with trade union organisations and governments in constructing labour relations systems grounded in collective bargaining, public labour inspection and decent work, then value chains delivering social and economic justice would today be underpinning sustainable, rights-based development.
Simon Steyne
Former senior adviser on fundamental rights at work, International Labour Organization

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