Lance Compa teaches international labor law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers should be a pivot point for the global apparel industry, moving consumers to demand more accountability from brand-name companies that subcontract production to supply-chain factories around the world. Sadly, the history of workplace tragedies in so many of these factories suggests that after consumers in rich countries express horror and call for reforms, the demands for better worker protections die down and the marketplace for cheap apparel abides. But this cycle can finally be broken if demands for change start to focus on workers’ right to form trade unions.
In the wake of labor abuses and workplace tragedies exposed in the 1990s, many apparel brands created in-house social compliance functions and joined “multi-stakeholder groups” with detailed monitoring and certification programs. But the one-day visits and checklist-style monitoring routine in such efforts have not worked.