On the dangers of believing the worst

Thanks to Dave Hoffman and the Co-op gang for having me back here. I’m planning to blog about global labor issues, starting with some thoughts on the recent news that Nicholas Kristof’s source for some of his anti-trafficking columns – the high-profile Cambodian activist Somaly Mam – “fabricated at least some parts of her own story and the dramatic, heartrending stories of girls she said were sold into sex slavery.”

Now, I can’t deny a bit of shadenfreude here—not because I harbor any malice for Mam or her organization, but rather because of Kristof’s know-nothing column of February insisting that academics should be more engaged in policy debates. The thing is, certain law professors have long argued that criminalization-based global regulatory approaches to sex trafficking can be downright counterproductive, and Mam’s organization seems to have been exemplified some of those trends. In particular, it seems to have thrived by casting trafficking as a wrong perpetrated by particular bad actors rather than a complex social phenomenon rooted in extreme economic and gender inequality. I’m oversimplifying, of course–sex trafficking is obviously a terrible practice, and those who perpetrate it are certainly bad actors. Nevertheless, this approach helped lead, some have argued, to “abusive crackdowns on the people [Mam] claimed to save,” rather than more nuanced efforts to prevent trafficking and assist its victims in the first place. Kristof might have called a law professor before embracing Mam’s work so uncritically.

This affair echoes a broader disturbing trend in public debate around global labor issues, particularly for unskilled production workers and the vast majority of trafficked workers who are in the domestic, agriculture, and garment sectors: namely, many activists’ and consumers’ uncritical belief of terrible stories of labor or other exploitation in the Global South.

Mam’s story is just the most recent one example. Another is Mike Daisy’s monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey’s stories of Apple/FoxConn workers with permanent paralysis due to the use of toxic chemicals; of armed guards outside FoxConn plants; and of meeting with numerous child workers led in part to Apple’s reform of its supply chain practices. That is all to the good. But NPR’s China correspondent quickly called out Daisey for his misunderstanding of Chinese society and even geography. As became clear, Daisey had embellished some aspects of his narrative, and had made others up from whole cloth.

Some other details about FoxConn’s factories that made headlines in the U.S. didn’t hold up to critical scrutiny either, in particular the spate of suicides in 2012. While shocking, the suicide rate at such plants actually wasn’t any higher than the general suicide rate in either China or the U.S. In fact, FoxConn final assembly workers’ laboring conditions may be better than most others’ in China. Yet many in the U.S. and Europe easily believed the worst: that those workers, uniquely, were driven to suicide by overwork.

Why are so many predisposed to believe the worst about Global South workers? And what are the consequences of that pattern of belief?

I think the easy acceptance of shocking worker narratives may be related to how those of us in liberal democracies tend to think about democracy and the rule of law. The notion that laboring conditions may be unspeakably bad in China or elsewhere then reflects a lingering sense that such nations exist outside of and apart from civilized society. Workers in the global south are then others, who by their very nature must be less-than-autonomous.

To be clear, whatever can be done to motivate Northern consumers and citizens to care about global justice may be a good thing. Viewing Global South workers as non-autonomous may encourage reforms to enhance those workers’ power over their own lives. Yet the strategy of calling attention to the worst sorts of abuses, cast in black-and-white moral terms, may distract reformers from developing more workable, pragmatic solutions to these questions—solutions that require difficult tradeoffs, and difficult questions of institutional design, but that may do substantial justice in the long run. It may also lead those with some power to change matters—particularly multinationals who can exert substantial power over their supply chain partners—to throw up their hands, in the view that if a country is simply ungovernable, constructive engagement is futile.

Each of these dynamics seems to have played out after the 2012-2013 Bangladesh garment factory disasters. Those were of course truly horrific, including the most deadly factory fire in the history of the global garment industry. Brands that sourced from Bangladesh then faced a dilemma: continue doing so and risk another disaster and reputational harm, or cease doing so and eliminate the menial jobs that were one of Bangladeshi’s only means to escape grinding poverty.

Disney, for example, took the latter route; most major European brands committed—under intense labor, consumer, and political pressure—to exert their economic power and logistical expertise to improve building safety in the country. While I don’t want to rule out the possibility that a savior complex motivated some European brands, they ultimately bought in to the hard work of constructing stable, bilateral regimes of labor governance, which is a quite different matter.

I’ll have more to say about the Bangladesh Accords in future posts, but for now I’ll end on a somewhat lighter note. I’ve struggled with how to bridge this gap between moral outrage and practical legal analysis when teaching global labor standards. When I cover Chinese labor law, I like to use this photo of FoxConn workers. Rather than lying on the ground injured, or standing in lines within a vast factory, here they are chatting outside the factory gates.

FoxConn Workers

And they look like hipsters rather than oppressed proletarians—viz., the skinny jeans, sneakers, and jagged haircuts. When it works, this can lead students to empathize with the workers as complete human beings, not as objects of pity or charity. Starting from that position, we can begin a much more nuanced conversation about the role of law and legal institutions in advancing global labor justice.

You may also like...