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Chart by "Free" means "full or partial democracy" as defined by the Center for Systemic Peace. Number of free states interpreted from existing CSP graph, with +/- 2 pts. accuracy (, p.10). Other data from IMF and U.S. census bureau.

The Complicity Problem

In this Mini Course you will learn the essentials of the U.N. position on a worldwide problem: the treatment of workers in third-world countries. The issue is sensitive because citizens (corporate citizens and consumers) in the first world do not want to feel responsible for working conditions that seem harsh or that ignore human rights. If you are involved in sales or customer relations in the first world, the information here may help you answer questions such as: “What is your company doing to protect the rights of the overseas workers who make the products you sell?”

1. Everyone basically knows raw outline of the complicity problem. But there are several questions: Am I as a seller of Chinese goods in the U.S. responsible for something that happens in China? Even if I am responsible for checking out my supplier, am I responsible for checking out my supplier’s supplier?

2. The U.N. did not have good answers to these kinds of questions until recently.

3. The U.N. divides responsibilities by distinguishing between PROTECT and RESPECT. States, for example, should protect the right of freedom of speech by ensuring there is no government interference with mass media. Corporations should show respect for human rights by allowing workers access to means of filing complaints.

4. But “respect” is an ambiguous word. The U.N. attempts to remove some of the ambiguity by further describing what “respect” means in the context of corporate activities.

5. For example, if you were involved in the textile industry in China, you should exercise your due diligence by evaluating the potential impacts of your activities in a variety of ways. In other words, you should carefully evaluate all the possible consequences of your actions as they relate to human rights in the broadest sense.

6. While there is a difference between State and Corporate responsibilities toward and human and labor rights, corporations cannot hide behind the fact that they need only “respect” rights in order to escape their responsibilities. They cannot, for example, choose to only “respect” selected rights. Corporations cannot escape their intrinsic responsibility not to harm. As a result, corporations should take care not to create serious harm regarding ANY forms of human or labor rights.

7. Be aware that actual legal cases have shown that corporations have been taken to court for alleged violations of virtually every Labor Right.

8. These responsibilities are deep and meeting them is time consuming. Yet, the U.N. report did not state that corporations are responsible for respecting labor and human rights ALL THE WAY DOWN. The reason is that the “rules” are supposed to be universal. That is, EVERY seller should see to it that its supplier is not abusing labor rights. Therefore, the chain of responsibility automatically goes to the bottom. This, at any rate, is the logical result of the U.N. recommendations if they are universally followed.

9. When people ask, one should say something along the lines of “our corporate duties extend primarily to respect human and labor rights, but we do not create or protect them in the way that states do. In accordance with the U.N. Ruggie Report, we make reasonable efforts to ensure our direct suppliers comply as much as possible with international labor rights laws, to the extent that these are granted within China or elsewhere. We perform our “due diligence” by carefully examining the impacts of our actions in foreign countries.

Created on 10/30/13