10 Jun 2021
The Sasin Research Seminar series continued with an online talk by Dr. Enrico Fontana on the 28th of May. Dr. Fontana discussed and explained an article he is co-authoring with Professor Cedric Dawkins (business ethicist and chair of the management department at Loyola University in Chicago, USA). A version of the article was accepted for presentation by the European Group of Organization Studies. The article looks at what happened in Bangladesh following the Rana Plaza incident in 2013. After that disaster, two major multi-stakeholder initiatives called the Accord and the Alliance emerged with the aim of improving worker health and safety in apparel factories. However, once these initiatives expired in 2018, serious health and safety issues have started happening again. These new incidents prompted a critical question that Dr. Fontana poses in the article: Why, after years of programmatic efforts to improve the health and safety of workers, we are back at the starting point? To examine this question, Dr. Fontana embraced a Gramscian theoretical perspective from sociological Marxism, with a specific focus on passive revolution. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian philosopher and politician imprisoned during Mussolini’s regime. Gramsci defined passive revolution as an organic and adaptive logic of hegemony where dominant groups, supported by the complacency of the civil society, mobilize cultural and structural resources in a time of crisis to retain power and avoid radical change. Dr. Fontana explained the background to the paper, which is still being written, and presented part of the vast amounts of data he has collected from numerous trips to Bangladesh. He began by outlining the fundamental problem examined in the article. After the departure of the Accord and Alliance in 2018, the responsibility for worker’s health and safety in Bangladesh was taken over by the Ready Made Garment Sustainability Council, and this has led to a rapid worsening of work conditions. It was this situation that led to the research question. Dr. Fontana explained the shifting roles of multi-national corporations (MNCs) and how the literature on Political Corporate Social Responsibility (PCSR) has emerged. PCSR is a new discipline centering on legitimizing the corporate politics played out by MNCs as part of their governance role. The return of poor working conditions can be understood as the outcome of what Gramsci labels as a passive revolution. Against this backdrop, suppliers’ manipulation by the dominant elites – the local elites and international buyers – leads to a return to the status quo. The phases typifying Gramsci’s passive revolution are departure, maneuver, and arrival. Dr. Fontana also discussed his data and research methods. These included 110 in-depth, open-ended interviews and 79 factory visits in Bangladesh between 2014 and 2018. He also looked at more recent related discourse from the tweets of the BGMEA, but also the articles from local and international newspapers on health and safety and the CSR / sustainability reports of buyers published in between 2018-2020. To answer the research question, Dr. Fontana asserted that suppliers are part of the passive revolution. The lack of remuneration from buyers impinges on suppliers’ ability to provide radical change for workers. Most of the changes therefore remain symbolic and create additional pressure on suppliers, which are already working on very tight margins. Dr. Fontana stressed that the paper is still in progress and the lively Q&A session was supportive and interesting. When asked about positive solutions, Dr. Fontana explained that local workers and marginalized stakeholders need more of a voice. The lecture was fascinating and informative. Dr. Fontana and Professor Dawkins will present the paper at EGOS 2021.