Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The global durability of sweatshops

Even after 15 years of antisweatshop campaigns and corporate social responsibility programs, sweatshops are still alive and well throughout the global economy, both in developing and developed countries. So says Garrett Brown, a health and safety expert who speaks from the perspective of a California state OSHA inspector and a coordinator of worker rights projects in Mexico, Central America, Indonesia, and China since 1993.

Brown made that assessment last month in an address to a conference of industrial hygienists in Tampa, Florida. Although he focused on the state of on-the-job health and safety, he also presented an overview of how workers are faring in today’s global production and distribution system. Among the specifics he cited were these:

—Most factories in the global system have a constantly shifting work force. In China, for example, “good” factories have annual turnover rates of 35-40 percent; “bad” factories have turnover rates of 90 percent or more.

—China’s contract factories often have two worksites: a “trophy factory,” clean, well lit, and code compliant for the benefit of visiting clients and monitors, and the “shadow factory” nearby where production actually occurs under sweatshop conditions, outside the purview of monitors or government inspectors.

—Another way used to game the system, in China and elsewhere, is to maintain three different books on financial accounting and the wages and hours of worker: one for internal use only, one for the government, and one set for outside monitors of compliance with codes of conduct. Some large factories producing for (say) four international brands may provide four separate books, each customized for the code of conduct requirements of the specific clients.

Even “high road” employers, the minority with corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, have made only slight improvements in their treatment of workers, according to Brown. He blames their “schizophrenic” business model of trying to maximize implementation of codes of conduct while also exerting pressures to minimize production costs.

In his Tampa talk on November 10, Brown described this schizoid scenario as typical:

On Tuesday. a brand’s CSR staffers lecture the factory manager to obey all the country’s labor laws and regulations and to meet old and new requirements of the brand’s code of conduct, or else—. On Thursday, the brand’s buyers tell the manager to maintain the same product quality while requiring him to cut contract costs by x percent this year and by xx percent the next, or else—.
The main purpose of Brown’s presentation was to encourage occupational health professionals to be educators and advocates to improve health and safety in the global supply chains.

“Industrial hygienists,” he said, “can take the lead in this effort within our own companies, especially transnational corporations with global supply chains; within our professional associations; as citizens, constituents, and consumers; and as champions of a ‘big picture’ perspective and a pro-worker approach.”

The Website of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Network, which Brown coordinates, has the full text of his Tampa presentation at, as well as a wealth of other information on the global production system and the need to reform it.

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