This issue’s forum takes on the poorly compensated, mind-numblingly tedious, physically demanding, sometimes-dangerous jobs that persist around the world in factories supplying Apple, HP, Nike, and other leading global brands.
Richard Locke, professor of political science and management at MIT, has spent the past decade studying companies’ efforts to improve working conditions in their supply chains. These private programs—spurred initially by the determined efforts of activists and sustained, he believes, by good intentions—have filled a void left by governments that fail to regulate labor markets. When he began this research, Locke hoped that the most effective programs could be identified, shared among companies, and used to create more just working environments in the overseas factories that produce so many of the goods we consume.
Locke gained unprecedented access to corporate audits, and he interviewed hundreds of managers. He finds the results of private, voluntary regulation disappointing. And he concludes that, while corporations should do what they can, improving labor standards is ultimately a public responsibility.
In the debate that follows, some respondents express skepticism that foreign governments have the requisite regulatory capacity. Others disagree, offering promising examples and strategies for enlisting governments—as well as NGOs, companies, and workers themselves—to help solve the problem. Still others call for a more comprehensive conversation involving labor rights, sustainability, and new business models. Who is responsible for ensuring decent standards for workers? Read the forum and decide.
Also in this issue: Peter Godfrey-Smith stretches our thinking about the human mind by exploring what it is like to be an octopus. And don’t miss Deborah Stone’s meditation on the compulsion to discriminate and categorize. She hopes that “because we can feel our creative powers as we sort and classify, we can transcend categories, too.”
Finally, we’d like to acknowledge Alan Stone, who started writing film essays for BR twenty years ago, in the spring of 1993. He has not missed an issue since. Alan’s compelling sense of life’s moral adventure has won him many fans, starting with us. We are grateful for his contribution to BR and for all that we have learned from him.