The mining disaster this week in Turkey (read here) is very sad and related to the discussion we had in class last week about the influence of activists on labor conditions in developing countries. Can “naming and shaming” transnational firms like Starbucks or Nike induce them to provide better working conditions for their workers, for example, pay higher wages and spend more on safety?
This is a complicated issue and involves several smaller discussions: If better work conditions raise labor costs, are consumers willing to pay more for goods? If a firm responds to higher labor costs by switching to labor-saving technology or moving its production to another location, are former workers better or worse off? Can consumers hold corporations accountable when production chains are becoming increasingly complicated and global? Take a look at, for instance, the production of iPhones, which have parts manufactured in 10 factories on 3 continents, to say nothing of the raw material used in these phones. Who can track where all these parts come from and what the working conditions were like at each location?
Activists are increasingly addressing these questions with varying levels of success. Most coffee chains in the US claim they use “fair trade coffee”, but the biggest, Starbucks, gets only 3% of its coffee from fair trade producers (the Wikipedia page is quite useful) Here is an article about a fair trade phone produced in Netherlands. Here is a TED talk aiming to inform people about how rare metals used in electronics fuel conflict in mineral-rich countries. But his is not the consensus view; here is an argument that rare minerals are not the primary cause of conflict.
The bottom line: understanding and addressing the economic origins of human rights violations is difficult.