In pursuit of decent work

sweat shops

Why do states make it so easy for corporations to exploit their populations?

Penelope Kyritsis (oD): Can you start by telling us your name and what you do?

My name is Sanjiv Pandita. I am the regional representative of an organisation called Solidar Suisse, and I work mostly on decent work programmes. In Asia, there are a lot of issues that workers face in supply chains and on production lines, so how can we help them and support workers organising on the ground.

Penelope: In your experience working with Solidar Suisse in these countries, what have you seen being the biggest obstacles that workers face in global supply chains?

Sanjiv: I think there are two or three main impediments. One is the exploitative nature of the supply chain. Supply chains exist because they are seeking the most vulnerable and the most marginalised workforce, so they can cut costs. And they are looking for young women from the rural areas in Cambodia and Bangladesh and Vietnam, whether they are working in electronics or the garment sector.

It’s corporate greed, basically, or the dominance of corporations in terms of deciding and overriding nation states. And then nation states, developing the idea that growth is based on export oriented growth. They are falling in this trap where they have to entice foreign direct investments, and therefore have to lower or eliminate labour standards in those zones. That, to me, is one of the difficult situations in the supply chains.

To make things worse, some of these countries have almost reduced the democratic space for organising. This is happening widely in Cambodia, in Bangladesh, so organising is getting more and more difficult. On the one hand, you have these exploitative modes of production, where workers coming from the rural side or from outside have to work for 10, 12, 14 hours at very low wages and very hazardous conditions. And on the other, they can’t organise into unions or sustainable organisations to bargain for change.

So these are some of the very difficult stages of the supply chain in present times.

asia supply chains

Penelope: What can governments do to better protect workers?

Sanjiv: This is a paradoxical question because states, by constitution, are supposed to protect their citizens but in practice it is not happening. A lot of the corporate nexus is causing governments to defy their own constitutions. Because the power of capital or industry is so big, you have to give some protective measures to the labour otherwise they stand no chance. That protection does not exist right now, but you need those institutions at the grassroots level.

Indeed, there is a lack of grassroots democracy because supply chains extend across different nations. So there’s the question of how can you bring them under any democratic control? And which nation state should control it?

If you had institutions of governance like strong factory inspectorates, which inspected factories and prosecuted for wrongdoings, which were answerable to the people in Bangladesh and Cambodia, and which operated with the participation of workers, that would make a difference. States should create these institutions.

Penelope: And in the absence of these institutions, what can workers do to protect themselves?

Sanjiv: Now workers are desperate because the exploitation has reached an extent that workers cannot tolerate any more – that’s the situation in Bangladesh, in Myanmar, and in many other countries, including China.

And there is no democratic space for engaging in any kind of dialogue or organising and bargaining for your rights. When you don’t have that space, workers come out and strike. There are a lot of strikes happening right now in Asia because they simply cannot tolerate this much exploitation.

The best way is for states to open up spaces so that workers can have freedom of association, can form their institutions, and can bargain for their rights. It is not happening right now. But – and to answer your question about what can be done – they keep on trying. Many authors call it collective bargaining by riot. If you are not giving me the democratic space, then I have to go on strike, and you must give something to us because this is going beyond tolerable limits.

Penelope: And moving forward, are there any promising initiatives, either by workers or by states that you see as being promising for addressing labour exploitation?

Sanjiv: I think what is coming from the ground is very encouraging, because despite the reduced democratic spaces we have seen the awareness among workers increasing. This is especially true among women workers, who are not what we would stereotype as docile women. The awareness is increasing. The use of technology is increasing, so they can quickly share information through WhatsApp or Facebook and organise.

It is happening at a large scale, and there is hope that they are coming together and that things are changing. In 2012, women just walked out in Cambodia. It was such an amazing moment, and then the Cambodian government had to increase wages. Similarly in Bangladesh, the government had to increase wages because these women walked out and said ‘enough is enough’.

These are very encouraging signs. There is workers’ dissent and workers’ unhappiness and workers’ activism. So now the challenge is how can it be channelled in the form of an institution, and how can we institutionalise this process so we can build this energy into some structural change in the supply chain.

This article by SANJIV PANDITA and PENELOPE KYRITSIS was first published on Open Democracy

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