Learning from Example

In its September monthly meeting, the Boston Global Forum looks at successful labor-rights implementation models and ways to implement these models in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia .

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Photo: Arnold Zack (left) with Governor Michael Dukakis at the BGF meeting

The Boston Global Forum has been working feverishly to find pragmatic solutions that can ameliorate health and safety conditions of garment factory workers in Bangladesh. In order to prevent another disaster like the Rana Plaza collapse or Tazreen factory fire, we have garnered support from impassioned government and academic leaders who are committed to devoting their time, knowledge and insight to the cause. In BGF’s September monthly meeting held on September 18, 2013, Governor Michael Dukakis, Arbitrator and Harvard Law School Researcher Arnold Zack, Harvard Business School Professor John Quelch and Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief Mr Nguyen Anh Tuan met in Cambridge, Massachusetts to share proceedings from the month previous and divulge ideas to accelerate the movement.

Chaired by Governor Dukakis, BGF’s monthly meeting opened with a discussion and analysis of the recent two-day conference held at New York University’s Stern Center on Business and Human Rights on the future of the garment industry in Bangladesh with reference to human rights issues. Major US and European retailers, governmental organizations, Bangladeshi officials and other key players were invited to participate in the conference. In realization of the need to both organize another round-table discussion and to ensure greater participation, Mr Tuan proposed an online conference, organized by BGF, in the coming months.

In this month’s meeting, the crux of the conversation was on the search for model third-world countries where international labor law standards have been successfully and sustainably demonstrated. Rising to the top was the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program. Formerly known as the ‘ILO Garment Sector Project’, Better Factories Cambodia rose out of a trade agreement between the United States and Cambodia in 2001 through which the US assured Cambodia access to its markets in exchange for improved working conditions in the garment industry. The ILO works closely with the Cambodian government, the Garment Manufacturer’s Association in Cambodia and international retailers to ensure safe and conducive working conditions in Cambodia.

Better Factories Cambodia employs multiple assiduous approaches to implement the highest possible safety standards in garment factories. Mr Zack said that the ILO uses a monitoring and evaluation procedure based on 500 different elements addressing fundamental issues like child labor and freedom of unions, and selective issues like over-time wages, maternity leave and protective equipment. The results then feed into extensive reports that detail levels of compliance of garment factories to these factors.

The success of Better Factories Cambodia also lies in its unique labor dispute resolution mechanism- the Arbitration Council. This national tripartite institution is made up of representatives from labor unions, the ministry and factory owners. All labor cases and conflicts are brought before the council that has developed a reputation for fairness and independence. The success of this form of mediation has made the council a model for judicial reform in Cambodia. Such is the triumph of Better Factories Cambodia that “factories from China are now relocating to Cambodia”, said Zack. He adds that retailers are proud of their association with ethical working conditions, in Cambodia, and are not discouraged by being held accountable to international standards.

Despite its success, the Cambodian model has been replicated in only a handful of countries, for instance in Lesotho. Thus far, it hasn’t been applied to Bangladesh. Troubled by the program’s limited expansion, Governor Dukakis raised provocative questions at the BGF meeting: “Why haven’t the U.S. and other interested countries been pushing it? Why aren’t we and others actively advocating for it?”  Upon consequent research by the BGF team, it was discovered that the answer might lie in the understanding the transition from a global system of trade quotas called the ‘Multifiber Agreement’ to the WTO’s quota-free trading environment.

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Governor Dukakis and John Quelch discuss future steps for the BGF

After deliberating over ILO’s Cambodian model, members of the Boston Global Forum steered the discussion towards other possible strategies to address the ‘Issue of the Year’. One key approach proposed was recognizing the importance of consumer education and pressure in maintaining international standards. Another approach suggested was for BGF to focus on work place safety under the larger aegis of worker rights. Professor Quelch introduced a broad-picture paradigm to the discussion by asking whether BGF should focus on Bangladesh alone or persevere for an all-ASEAN absorption of ILO standards? In support for the Cambodian model, he also suggested that BGF should research the reasons behind the success of the Cambodian model and publish its findings online as a statement of advocacy.

In closing, Professor Quelch reminded the BGF about the need to collaborate with experts in the field by inviting their participation through written commentary and statements on the website.  He also proposed actively reaching out to Michael Posner, Labor Rights Advocate and head of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights to demonstrate our willingness to aid his efforts on the issue.

The Boston Global Forum will work on these propositions in the coming month and will convene for another round of discussions in October 2013. If you wish to join our conversation or participate in our meetings, please send in your request to our Editor-in-Chief, Mr Nguyen Anh Tuan at Tuan_Nguyen@BostonGlobalForum.org

Dialogue for Change

Boston Global Forum brings together leaders and renowned professors from Harvard and MIT to lead the discussion on worker safety.

Professor Richard Locke (right) addresses the group as Governor Michael Dukakis (center) and Professor Thomas Kochan listen on.
Professor Richard Locke (far right) addresses the group as Governor Michael Dukakis (center) and Professor Thomas Kochan listen on.

July 18, 2013 Boston- To propel discussions around Boston Global Forum’s (BGF) 2013’s ‘Issue of the Year’, a group comprising BGF Chairman Michael Dukakis, BGF Executive Director, Nguyen Anh Tuan, distinguished academicians from universities like Harvard and MIT, and representatives from non-profit advocacy groups met last week in Boston to discuss Minimal Standards for Worker Safety The infamous Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 people in April 2013 is the inspiration behind BGF’s Mission for 2013.

Evoking the genesis of Boston Global Forum and its choice of mission for 2013, Governor Dukakis opened the meeting by reminding its participants that BGF was created to reach out to the entire world using information technology to initiate a global conversation around of the issue of the year.  This conversation, unlike most others, would be solution-oriented– one that results in a set of recommendations that could be “internationally enforced”.  He further added that there was a stark absence of international conversation around the issue of occupational safety, and hoped that the forum could leverage a dialogue “in a way that could build a body of law that is enforceable.”

The meeting addressed several aspects of international worker safety drawing upon examples of supply chain policies, private and public sector arrangements and trade agreements. Richard Locke, professor of Political Science at Brown University and author of The Promise & Limits of Private Power stated that the best success stories, in his understanding of the processes, lie in the combination of private and public sector interventions. While private enterprises are necessary to ensure efficiency (in keeping with their best interest), the government needs to enforce basic enabling rights for workers.   “Where you see that combination, that’s where you see success, “ adds Locke. He illustrated his theory with the Better Work Cambodia Program directed by the International Labor Organization (ILO). In this program, the United States used its markets as a “carrot” to drive improvements in working conditions and safety standards. The resulting improvement in worker safety which was made possible by the combined efforts of local governments, private business and the ILO.

The round-table, comprised of American luminaries, rebuked the response of American multinationals to the Bangladesh tragedy. “We’ve got to take advantage of putting pressure on the multinationals and the US multinationals have been slow relative to the Europeans,” said Thomas Kochan, Co-Director MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.  While European multinationals are putting pressure to change labor law in Bangladesh after the tragedy, American corporations like Walmart and Gap, are withholding involvement with trade unions on the ground or international alliances, he said. Jeffrey Stookey, former professor at Boston University augmented this idea by pointing out that European Union stopped bank loans to Bangladeshi companies that fell short of safety standards. John Quelch, professor at Havard Business School also pointed out that the US has failed in stepping up to this challenge- a behavior that is inconsistent with its reputation of a country that pioneered positive global interventions in the 20th century.

Harvard Business School Professor, John Quelch (left)  talks to MIT professors Richard Locke (center) and Thomas Kochan (right).
Harvard Business School Professor, John Quelch (left) talks to MIT professors Richard Locke (center) and Thomas Kochan (right).

The Rana Plaza factory collapse draws emphasis to the need to talk about a subject that hasn’t received enough attention. Quelch recalled his experience leading a business school in China to talk about the “less-than pleasant practices” that workers have to endure. He hoped that the Bangladesh tragedy could work as a “catalyst” to stimulate discussions on an often-overlooked issue. Professor Quelch went on to emphasize the need for legislation in bringing about any stringent change in worker safety. “Even with legislation, it’s often difficult to make things stick as well but without it I feel that, personally, it’s going be tough to keep the interest and momentum up,” he said. While addressing human rights concerns, Quelch pointed out that children have, unfortunately, been left out of conversations surrounding the Bangladesh disaster.  Rendered helpless by their vulnerability, children are often the worst victims of disasters and calamities.

Incidents like the Bangladesh disaster cannot be averted by enforcing legislation alone. MIT’s Thomas Kochan argued about the need for a bottom-up approach in addressing this subject. He stated that sustained enforcement of labor law could be achieved through the development of local institutions like trade unions, NGOs and coalitions resulting between them.

State laws within the US have attempted to ensure transparency and labor standards in procurement processes, sometimes with success. Liana Fozvog from International Labor Rights Forum  (ILRF) and Marcy Gelb from MassCOSH (Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health)  described their findings stating that several states and cities across the country have joined a sweat-free consortium that should ideally be instituted at the federal level.  In Massachusetts, laws that require disclosure of factories and apparel to be union-made are not always upheld.

Moving Forward

The meeting culminated in dialogue about future actions for Boston Global Forum. Recommendations included a ten-point plan for the Commonwealth to help position Massachusetts as a ‘best practice state’ in the field of worker safety; networking to encourage American multinational companies to participate in future meetings on compensating victims of the Bangladesh disaster; bringing together various stakeholders and actors to talk about solutions that have worked and about governments, private institutions and other organizations that are making a difference; transforming the Boston Global Forum website into an information resource for interested audiences; garnering interest and representation from the State Department or the Department of Labor in BGF’s discussions; inviting Human Rights and Business expert Michael Posner, professor at New York University’s Stern’s School of Business and former official at the State Department to join the forum; and addressing local state laws in Massachusetts that are not being effectively enforced.