A couple of weeks ago we saw the tragic death of at least 250 Pakistani apparel workers in an unregulated factory, the worst such disaster in history.
It later emerged that this factory was supplying garments to the European market including Germany’s KiK.
It also emerged that this very factory was audited by RINA (Registro Italiano Navale Group) at the behest of New York-based Social Accountability International (SAI) just a short while before the fire occurred, and certified as meeting the SA8000 standard as a fair and safe supplier.
SA8000 is a voluntary standard promoted by SAI as a means of ensuring that suppliers are ethical. No one would suggest that it is anything but sincere but this incident makes a mockery of it.
When interviewed by Al Jazeera, SAI’s Executive Director didn’t seem particularly upset or contrite about the incident either:
True, if the deaths were anyone’s fault it was the negligent factory owners (who are now on murder charges). Plus, if you look narrowly at the auditing aspect, it’s more RINA’s fault than SAI’s as they were the people on the ground.
However it really doesn’t rescue SAI. To blame it on RINA is to use the precise defense that suppliers try to use but know they can’t get away with. Imagine if Mattel said that in 2007 when it had the toxic paint problem: “Well, hey, it’s not our supplier, it’s our supplier’s supplier doing the wrong thing, so how are we to know?” If SAI, the supposed leader, can’t monitor their own contractors, how are companies supposed to?
This tragic episode underscores the shortcomings of SA8000. You can’t manage workers’ rights in the same way that you might manage food additive levels or child restraint shock resistance, as something that can be measured and implemented but always imparted. All companies need to do is stand back and listen to what people want (like … ventilation and fire exits, let’s say). It’s not really that difficult.
Asia Monitor Resource Centre recently published a book about this very issue, titled The Reality of Corporate Social Responsibility: Case Studies on the Impact of CSR on Workers in China, South Korea, India and Indonesia. You can download the PDF on their site here: http://www.amrc.org.hk/system/files/Book%20-%20The%20Reality%20of%20CSR%20-%20AMRC.pdf It is well worth checking out.
This book is written by people at the front line thoughout developing Asia and documents how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that reflects the corporate agenda is not only unhelpful to workers in the developing world but is frequently used as a strategy to prevent workers and other community groups from having their place at the table.
In the Asian context, CSR mostly involves activities like adopting villages for what they call a ‘holistic development’, in which they provide medical and sanitation facilities, build school and houses, and helping villagers become self-reliant by teaching them vocational and business skills. Such corporate strategies have been effectively hegemonic, providing a strong legitimacy and license for corporations to sustain the exploitation of human and natural resources. More importantly, it leads people to wrongly assume that the business houses, and not the states, are responsible for citizens’ basic rights to better education, clean water, healthcare, etc. It disciplines the un-informed poor motivating them to behave in ways that make state regulation obsolete, while leaving them at the mercy of market forces. (pp. 2-3)
Rights aren’t something that you can “give” or impart, they are something that you acknowledge. That’s the problem with CSR: it is by definition an after-thought that merely papers over an existing way of doing things without seriously challenging them.
SAI’s mistake was not promoting SA8000, it was disowning this catastrophic system failure. They haven’t made a peep of a suggestion that they need to re-examine their way of doing things.
SAI is funded by the companies that obtain its certification (rather like FairTrade), which leads me to think it will soldier on through the crisis, notwithstanding the harm that’s been done to its reputation.
There is more than one group operating in this space and it’s really important that they aren’t all tarred with the same brush. All up, six groups belong to the Joint Initiative on Corporate Accountability and Workers Rights.
SAI is one. Another, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), was set up during the Clinton administration. It has also been criticised for being too soft on business (they are the company auditing Foxconn).
Of the others, Fair Wear Foundation, Clean Clothes Campaign and the Workers Rights Consortium all put the promotion of union membership and worker consultation and participation front and centre and really need to be lauded for the great work they do in partnership with developing-world worker organisations.
The last, the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative, seems to adopt a tripartite ILO-type approach which presumes unions’ involvement without pushing it too hard.
The best thing that could come out of this disaster is that FWF, CCC and WRC start getting some phone calls from companies whose motivation isn’t white-washing but who want to know that their suppliers are decent places to work in reality.
Related posts on FairForAll.org:
- So what is wrong with works councils? 18 July 2011
- Industry led fairtrade certification … hmm 13 October 2011
- Illusion of Control 25 April 2012
Related articles elsewhere in the blogosphere:
- SA8000 worthless until proven meaningful (cyclingforprogress.wordpress.com)
- corporate social responsibility, reputation, and activist targeting (orgtheory.wordpress.com)