Magazine article The American Prospect

Wary Allies

Magazine article The American Prospect

Wary Allies

Article excerpt

Trade Unions, NGOs, and Corporate Codes of Conduct

CORPORATE CODES OF CONDUCT OFFER A"THIRD way" to promote labor rights in the global economy--a civil-society alternative to first-way government regulation or second-way trade-union organizing and collective bargaining. Supporters argue that such codes can harness the market power of informed consumers to halt abuses against workers in developing countries, given that national laws vary and governments cannot possibly inspect every workplace and prevent every abuse.

Like cereal boxes in a supermarket aisle, a daunting variety of codes have entered the public-policy marketplace in recent years. These are sponsored by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the Fair Labor Association, the Worker Rights Consortium, the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Rugmark Foundation, the Foulball Campaign, and Social Accountability 8000 (SA8000), a takeoff on the ISO 9000 manufacturing-quality standards. Members of these consortia include company officials, trade unionists, human rights activists, religious leaders, consumer and community organizations, student groups, and university administrators. The codes and their enforcement mechanisms are the result of extensive bargaining among the stakeholders; they are the successors of an earlier round of company-only codes of conduct proclaimed by Levi Strauss and Company, Reebok, Nike, Gap, and others. These internal corporate codes flunked the fox-in-the-chicken-coop test.

But like third-way politics generally, with its talk of putting a human face on free market efficiency, the substance behind the rhetoric of these codes is open to question. Is consumer consciousness enough to reward good corporate citizens and punish abusers of workers' rights? Can private policing, even by the best-intentioned NGOs, really raise labor standards in a sustained way? Unions are accountable to workers; but whom exactly do the NGOs represent? Will a rush to corporate codes of conduct undermine effective labor-law enforcement by governmental authorities and weaken workers' power in trade unions?

Unions and NGOs share a common desire to halt abusive behavior by multinational companies and a broader goal of checking corporate power in the global economy. A global supply chain of subsidiaries, contractors, subcontractors, and sub-subcontractors has taken shape in export-processing zones around the world. Employers in these enclaves exploit cheap, abundant, usually female labor in what is often called a global assembly line. Many of the factories serve household-name companies, whose image--conveyed by a logo, a slogan, or a famous spokesperson--is their strongest marketing tool. But image can also be an Achilles' heel if consumers are made aware of abusive practices in factories that produce the goods they purchase. Trade unions and NGOs have collaborated in consumer-awareness campaigns targeting Nike, Gap, Wal-Mart, Disney, Liz Claiborne, and other well-known firms, and personalities like Kathie Lee Gifford (with a big splash) and Michael Jordan (with barely a ripple).

Despite justifiable skepticism, many unions have supported the new movement for corporate codes of conduct. UNITE, the U.S. apparel and textile workers' union, first joined with the International Labor Rights Fund, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the Consumer Federation of America, and other NGOs, along with a number of high-profile companies, in an effort called the White House Apparel Industry Partnership that was sponsored by the Clinton administration and then-Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich. But UNITE pulled out of the partnership's Fair Labor Association when union officials thought the other participants were cutting a deal behind their backs--a deal they thought was a bad one, with weak enforcement measures.

Officials from UNITE and other unions still participate in the SA8000 program with representatives of the National Child Labor Committee and Amnesty International and with executives from Toys "R" Us, Avon Products, and the Dole Food Company. …

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