This past Monday, February 23rd, The Annual Economic and Social Rights Lecture was delivered by Dr. Richard Locke, the Howard R. Sweater Director of the Watson Institute for International Studies and a professor of political science and public and international affairs at Brown University. He also currently chairs the Apple Academic Advisory Board, a group of independent academics who provide free consultation to companies on how to make ethical decisions in their corporate practices.
Dr. Locke’s presentation was largely structured around his most recent research study and book, The Promise and Limits of Private Power: Promoting Labor Standards in Global Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Dr. Locke began by describing a most recent act of deplorable corporate negligence: the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Savar, Bangladesh. While hundreds of workers were killed and thousands more injured, there is an even more outrageous fact about this catastrophe: It was completely avoidable.
With this atrocity in the forefront of our minds, Professor Locke then began to discuss some of the key findings of his research. First, he pointed out the inadequacies of private compliance strategies in addressing international labor legal standards. As a way of supplementing these failing tactics, Locke emphasized the need to incorporate a kind of “capabilities” approach to reformulating labor standards in our growing global economy. A capabilities approach, according to Dr. Locke, would prioritize the development of workers’ skills as a means of empowerment and also to increase product quality.
A captivating speaker, Dr. Locke spoke with passion and clarity about international labor standards. Now, I am by no means an expert in international labor standards, but I was able to clearly understand the technical nuances of the research Dr. Locke was introducing us to. For those who were not able to make it to the talk, some of the important takeaways Dr. Locke gave us were as follows: Rather than simply focusing on formal compliance, governments and companies themselves need to give suppliers managerial skills to run efficient factories and make them ethical. Giving workers the capability to run their factory more ethically and efficiently will be the catalyst for a company-wide restructuring. Dr. Locke also reminded us that it is possible to do this without “breaking the bank”! In many cases, it is as expensive to implement the changes in labor standards based on capabilities approach that he advocated as it is to conduct private compliance audits (which cost billions of dollars). Finally, he argued that it is crucial to bring the state back into the conversation, because, although we are looking at these issues through an individual human rights lens, we cannot totally discount the influence of states and governments on the implementation of labor standards.
As the evening was winding down and I was walking with Dr. Locke over to the UConn School of Business, I asked him what was rewarding about being a part of the HRI economic and social rights lecture series and event. His response: “Meeting new people, having a new experience and enjoying the experience; also knowing there is a community out there dedicated to the same work is inspiring and gratifying.” I can certainly say it was a pleasure meeting Dr. Locke and learning more about his project, and I think I speak on behalf of the Human Rights Institute when I say it is always rejuvenating to meet scholars dedicated to the same kinds of issues that are so strongly impassion us here at UConn.