Richard Locke: How to make factory conditions better

April’s factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 400 people, has renewed public debate over working conditions in the developing world: How can dangerous and debilitating factory work be improved?

For more than a decade, MIT political scientist Richard Locke has studied that question. Locke has made hundreds of visits to factories around the world, heading a team of researchers who have been collecting an unprecedented amount of information from companies. For years, Locke thought that the answer might lie in private policing: multinational firms auditing the factories where their suppliers produce goods, noting safety violations, and threatening to withhold business from those suppliers.

But in recent years Locke has changed his view. Private oversight, he thinks, is not enough to eliminate workplace dangers, excessive hours, child labor and poor wages. Governments, he says, must set and uphold better factory standards as well.

“The dominant approach to trying to fix these issues, the private-compliance approach, didn’t work, systematically,” says Locke, who is head of MIT’s Department of Political Science and deputy dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management. “It’s better than nothing, but it wasn’t leading to a significant and sustained improvement in working conditions or enforcement of labor rights in any of the supply chains that we studied.”

Now in a new book, “The Promise and Limits of Private Power,” published this month by Cambridge University Press, Locke expands on this perspective, detailing ways in which both the private sector and governments can work — and sometimes work together — to make factory life more tolerable for workers.

“The private sector can only do so much, and certain issues are issues of citizenship rights, such as the freedom of association, and the freedom to bargain collectively,” Locke says. “You can’t enforce those rights one factory at a time or one supply chain at a time, or even one brand at a time. Those are territorially enforced rights, and only the sovereign states can do that.”

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By: Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office

Learn more about Richard Locke.

Richard Locke discusses labor and global supply chains in the media: NPR's To the Point, Business Insider, The Globe and Mail, Radio New Zealand (RNZ), Solar, the Economic Policy Institute, AFSCME, Opinio Juris, the Council on Foreign Relations.

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