Do Your Suppliers Rely On Slave Labor? How Can You Know?

From Forbes, May 1, 2016

Leading social compliance organizations are asking participating companies to report on their efforts to make sure that they are not procuring goods produced by slave labor in their corporate social responsibility reports. And 2015 saw “an unparalleled spike in legislative and enforcement efforts.” More recently, President Obama signed into law a bill containing a provision that officially bans imports of goods made by forced labor.

What can companies do about this? Well some big companies are throwing people at the problem. In a Wall Street Journal article, Jackie Sturm, vice president of global supply chain management at Intel, explained that educating and training suppliers requires a significant commitment in time, resources and patience. Intel has two dozen people dedicated to the task plus dozens more who assist in the effort.

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Laboring for change

In this guest column in the University of Maryland student newspaper, the writer recounts a successful campaign on the University of Maryland campus to get the University to end its contract with an athletic apparel company that was violating workers’ rights. She now suggests a “a broader solution that will encourage fundamental change.” Read the article here.

This year, we have already learned about violations at two Nike factories that produce collegiate apparel in which fired workers have been denied owed pay. We cannot stand by as more workers lose their jobs because they stood up for their rights. But we cannot simply cut individual contracts and expect industry-wide reform. We successfully punished Russell’s labor violations last semester, but now we need a broader solution that will encourage fundamental change. We have the power to ensure no university clothing supports unethical policies that harm workers; we just need a way to use it more effectively.

The solution is the Designated Suppliers Program, a plan that would use the licensing power of this university to provide incentives for companies to respect workers’ rights. The DSP would help prevent companies from deserting unionized factories by requiring apparel companies to send a certain percentage of their orders to factories with fair labor practices.

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Silicon Sweatshops

Global Post has assembled a five-part investigation of supply chains that produce many of the world’s most popular tech products. Read the article here.

Embarrassed companies have vowed to do better. They’ve drafted “codes of conduct” for their Asian suppliers, and promised more factory audits to catch abuses.

But here’s the problem, say activists: While such codes may be great public relations, they’re not working to fix the problem. Worse, the codes permit the big brands to pat themselves on the back, even as workers continue to be exploited in the shadowy world of Asian electronics supply chains.

“These codes of conduct and audits are new tools that every brand will have, and they feel so proud of themselves,” said Jenny Chan, a labor rights activist formerly with Hong Kong labor rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM). “But the codes have limits. To see fundamental change, you have to get labor groups involved and gain the trust of workers. Otherwise it’s just a cat-and-mouse game between auditors and suppliers.”

The problem is compounded by a lack of transparency. Asian electronics supply chains are notoriously murky. Contractors shift orders across borders and between factories and subcontractors, and many major brands treat their supplier list as top-secret information.

That makes it difficult to pin down who’s making what for whom and, therefore, difficult to fix blame when allegations of abuse come to light. When a factory catches flak from labor rights groups and negative media coverage, the big customers often cut orders or sever business ties — a surgical strategy that activists say fails to address underlying, systemic problems in the industry.

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