Nation & World

Discussion pivots on worker protection in a global economy

3 min read

Ethical employment practices and safeguarding workers’ rights in a global economy were the focus of discussion April 29 at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

In a conversation with Mary Robinson — past president of Ireland, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and now chair of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative — several Harvard faculty discussed the role of governments, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations in improving conditions for workers worldwide.

Moderator Martha Chen, lecturer in public policy, opened the forum by describing economic conditions that create a “race to the bottom” for corporations in search of inexpensive labor.

“The global production system by which jobs are outsourced to different countries — and can be moved within countries with the click of a mouse — undermines collective bargaining and protective legislation,” she said.

The global working population has doubled in the past two decades, Chen said, citing research by another panelist, Richard Freeman, professor of economics at Harvard and co-director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “With so many new entrants into the global labor pool,” Chen said, “the bargaining power of labor has been undermined.”

Individual governments have primary responsibility for improving labor conditions, said Robinson. Yet, she added, “developing countries … all too often believe that promoting workers’ rights will make them a less competitive destination” for global capital and foreign investment. Trapped between competing interests, Robinson said, leaders of developing countries face the question, “If you start talking about decent work for your workers, are you going to deter investment?”

John Ruggie, director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, discussed how some businesses have made voluntary efforts. “[For] most large companies in the global economy,” Ruggie said, “social and market pressures have made it impossible for them to ignore” present-day labor issues.

Robinson offered several ideas for improving working conditions in the global economy — including developing legally binding, international agreements and educating consumers about the role marketplace choices can play in undermining or supporting the livelihoods of those far across the globe. And, she said, regulation also has a part to play.

“Governments have to take a stronger role to ensure that workers’ rights are respected by domestic and international companies, and that they don’t allow pressure to weaken international labor recommendations,” Robinson stated. “The race to the bottom is a scramble to undermine workers’ rights and shouldn’t be tolerated.”

The forum was sponsored by the Harvard Commission on Human Rights Studies, the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations.