Reshma's rescue from the ruins of the collapsed garment factory building in Bangladesh is undoubtedly good news. But what will her options be after she recovers? Get back to work? Will that work and the options open to her have changed in any meaningful way?
There are calls for global rules on outsourcing, incorporation of labor standards into bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, increased and even compulsory auditing by NGOs and government agencies, increased monitoring of and selectivity in supply chains by large multinationals, greater transparency and consumer boycotts.
While most of these calls are well-intentioned and many of these measures can contribute to safer and more just working conditions, it is important to acknowledge that none of them is a silver bullet and all of them carry their own costs.
Global rules, for example, are often driven by Western-centric models that do not acknowledge the different economic development needs and cultural and institutional idiosyncrasies in the countries where they are to be implemented.
Auditing is costly and intrusive, and in fact several of the factories in the collapsed building had apparently been audited and received a clean pass.
Client multinationals can, should and, in many cases, will become more careful in the selection and monitoring of their suppliers. That may result in increased costs for all (although not necessarily, once one includes reputational risks) and also impact the available alternatives for some of the poorest workers.
And finally, consumer boycotts have a patchy record, often focusing on the big brands while leaving other organizations with less brand equity to protect and often less sound practices untouched.
However, I have heard few calls to give Reshma and the millions of people making a living working like her a voice and an opportunity, from organizing freely and having a say in the sort of working conditions appropriate for them to establishing their own enterprises via all sorts of individual and cooperative businesses that can compete locally and, in some cases, globally.
Let's pay attention to their voices.
J. Tomas Gomez-Arias is associate dean of faculty and research school of economics and business administration at Saint Mary's College in Moraga.