Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Business and Human Rights

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Business and Human Rights

Article excerpt

Global brands monitor manufacturing conditions worldwide.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1998, an exhibit titled "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present" attracted visitors to the National Museum of American History. The exhibit reminded visitors of the horrific abuses of the past and present, including the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 - in which nearly 150 workers died as a result of locked exits and poor fire safety - and more recently, in August 1995, the discovery of an illegal sweatshop in El Monte, California, where Thai immigrants were imprisoned for years.

In fact, the success of our own industrial revolution 100 years ago was based in part on the harsh realities of child labor, excessive work hours, and poor health and safety conditions. Industrialists then considered these conditions a necessary growing pain, part of the process of maturing into a modern economy. But they were abuses nevertheless. Today, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and pursue a more humane course of development and industrialization.

Global Brands, Universal Rights

Global brands are multinational companies that typically buy products from independently owned and operated manufacturers and suppliers around the world. In recent years, some companies have begun to apply the principles of human rights in the workplaces of manufacturers in producing countries. This movement has brought increasingly high standards to the workplace, primarily in semi-skilled export industries such as apparel, athletic footwear, and toy manufacturers located in the developing world. While initial successes spark the hope that this movement will continue to improve conditions in these factories, the agenda to fulfill this goal is full.

Just a few short years ago, the public paid little attention to the role businesses could play in promoting and protecting the human rights of workers in factories around the world. Several factors have since brought this issue to the forefront of public debate. The agenda of nongovernmental organizations, such as human rights and labor rights groups, has broadened to include examination of the role of multinational companies in the lives of workers producing their products. Consumer interest and awareness have grown as media coverage has increased. Companies have also come to recognize the beneficial relationship between good workplace conditions and high quality products.

For Reebok International Ltd. the original impetus for implementing change came in 1988 when the company decided to give financial support to Amnesty International for organizing an international concert tour designed to bring awareness of human rights to young people around the globe. Inspired by the young human rights activists who accompanied the tour, Reebok's senior management decided to continue its support for the cause of human rights. That same year, Reebok granted its first Human Rights Awards, given to young people around the world who, early in their lives and against great odds, have significantly improved the human rights conditions of people in their communities.

In 1992, Reebok adopted a code of conduct to incorporate internationally recognized human rights standards into its business practices and those of its suppliers. This code is known as the Reebok Human Rights Production Standards, or Reebok Standards. At that time, there was no guidance on how to implement a code of conduct and ensure compliance in independent factories. With the notable exceptions of Levi Strauss & Co. and Phillips-Van Heusen, which established their codes of conduct in 1991, few corporations had thought about how to draft a code of conduct, much less make it a living tool to protect the rights of workers. In the last six years, however, dozens of global brands have adopted and begun implementing workplace codes of conduct. …

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