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If we consumers want our clothing and other consumables to be made in more humane conditions, we need to be willing to pay for them and to change the way we think about our wardrobes and the frequency with which we change them. We can’t do this by ourselves. The corporations that enable our addiction need to be incentivized by their customers to do things differently.
Second, to do things differently industry needs to be held legally and economically accountable not just for its direct employees, but also its indirect employees like those who died in Bangladesh working for contractors. It is true that many retailers and buyers have tried to monitor and influence labor standards in their global supply chains when governments fail to do so, as they often do.
But buyers are first and foremost for-profit entities responsible to their shareholders. They are experts in marketing, logistics, and distribution — not labor standards enforcement, and not moral reasoning. While managers have hearts and minds, corporations respond to economic incentives from consumers and regulators who can punish and reward.
Third, domestic governments like Bangladesh must be held accountable for their lack of action. Governments, like corporations, also respond to incentives, and Bangladesh is no exception. Whenever the United States government threatens to impose any form of trade sanction, the Bangladesh government screams murder, and the U.S. and other governments rarely if ever take action.
Finally, workers — not just in Bangladesh but globally — need to take action not just against the retailers, but against their governments. When the Bangladesh government strikes back, which it will, the government needs to be punished by the global community.
A global economy needs global and domestic institutions to accomplish many of these things. Labor standards must start to become mainstreamed into the global trading regime, including in the World Trade Organization, just as they are now included in U.S. trade agreements. If a government fails to respect internationally recognized labor standards, it should be punished with trade sanctions.
Corporations should be held accountable under domestic civil law for their negligence in preventing harm and violating the rights of workers in their global supply chain, even when not direct employees. Transparency laws should require good faith efforts to provide cost breakdowns of the garments and other goods that we buy, including the wages received by workers in the supply chain, from workers at the bottom to CEOs at the top.
If this disaster will lead to real change, consumer pressure and corporate action will not be enough. My wife and I choosing to boycott goods from Bangladesh, for example, is most certainly not the answer. What is needed is a broad based effort by both public and private actors to make right a fundamental wrong in today’s global economy.
Kevin Kolben is an associate professor at Rutgers Business School.