Can a factory be a sweatshop, and getting better too?
This Guardian report leads with the awful news that a Chinese worker committed suicide. http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/aug/27/disney-factory-sweatshop-suici... The article -- built off allegations by a Hong Kong-based anti-sweatshop organization -- also contains more typical descriptions of a 'non-compliant' Chinese workplace. Wages are excessive, work is underpaid, safety is imperfect, and supervisors are abusive. Sad as it may sound, this profile is neither unusual nor the worst that we see.
The factory makes toys, and operates under a scheme called the ICTI-CARE program -- ICTI for International Council of Toy Industries, CARE because it purports to care for workers. ICTI responds to the reported allegations of poor working conditions with an interesting counter: that things have gotten better for many workers in toy factories because of the ICTI-CARE 'continuous improvement' process.
Which brings an interesting question to mind: can the factory be an exploitative workplace and also getting better too? If so, how would one know?
In our experience auditing toy factories, the ICTI CARE process does not necessarily deliver good working conditions. Substantial violations exist in factories that operate under the scheme. But the transparency that results from ICTI investigations leads to awareness and understanding, and in the right hands (willing factory owner, committed brand/buyer, consistent commitment) there is every reason to believe that some improvements in working conditions can result. This improvement isn't automatic -- it needs to be shepherded by skilled and facilitative change agents both outside and within the factory -- but it can be achieved and, to the point made by the ICTI spokesperson, it probably is in some cases.
So the simple answer is 'yes, a factory can be non-compliant and improving at the same time.' This answer is probably unsatisfactory for those on the extremes: NGOs who believe anything less that perfect is terrible, and companies that believe all NGOs are out to get them. But the truth is that the massive effort toward supply chain social responsibility over the past 15 years has achieved this unsatisfying middle ground: some good stuff is happening,but things overall are still pretty bad, and a lot of the effort that has been put in has not been particularly effective.
Here's where the second question comes in: how do we know if things are getting better? Or, in a context that is complex and uncertain, how do we know if working conditions are good enough? The answer here is vital if we are to shift from the current unsatisfying equilibrium to a world where supply chains truly benefit their most vulnerable participants. And the answer is simple: ask the workers. The only people who really know what a workplace is like are the workers. In our 15 years of experience in thousands of factories talking to millions of workers -- they are the only source of information that can accurately report how many hours they have worked; which supervisors have discriminated against which workers; who has been penalized for speaking out or advocating for herself; how much they actually get paid after illegal deductions. Unless a factory listens to its workers, unless a scheme like ICTI-CARE incorporates workers' voices, unless the true evaluation of the quality of a workplace comes from its workers -- we will continue to get it wrong.
Verite is launching an initiative to evaluate the impact of supply chain social responsibility by integrating workers' voices. We believe that our approach will enable us, and our clients, to derive a clearer and more accurate picture of the effectiveness of their CSR activities. In the meantime it is incumbent on institutions like ICTI-CARE to ensure that its investigations incorporate workers' voices. And it is essential that NGOs who are rightfully critical of company performance on working conditions admit where things have gotten better.
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