Corporate Social Responsibility: Brings Limited Progress on Workplace Safety in Global Supply Chains

By Brown, Garrett | Occupational Hazards, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Corporate Social Responsibility: Brings Limited Progress on Workplace Safety in Global Supply Chains


Brown, Garrett, Occupational Hazards


Fifteen years after blistering anti-sweatshop campaigns against transnational corporations like Nike sparked the booming corporate social responsibility industry, there have been small improvements in workplace health and safety in the thousands of factories in the developing world. These modest gains, however, are undermined by fatal flaws caused by conflicting demands of transnationals on their global supply chains.

The most visible aspects of corporate social responsibility (CSR) over the last decade have been the proclamation of hundreds of corporate codes of conduct; the development of numerous in-house and third-party code monitoring organizations; thousands of pre-announced factory audits; dozens of annual CSR conferences, magazines and books; and the issuance of glossy annual CSR reports, especially by consumer goods retailers.

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Yet the actual impact of all this CSR activity on working conditions on the factory floors of suppliers in some of the poorest countries in the world has been marginal. There has been a flood of reports, both about particular factories and CSR programs in general, indicating that not much has changed, despite the millions of dollars spent in the CSR industry. [See the sidebar with a list of key reports.]

Weak impact of CSr on Working Conditions

Certainly there has been no progress in meeting the first two of the four "core categories" of the 1998 International Labor Organization's "Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights At Work:"

1) Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;

2) The elimination of forced or compulsory labor;

3) The abolition of child labor; and

4) The elimination of discrimination with respect to employment and occupation.

Progress in the last two categories of the ILO Declaration has been restricted to a relative handful of the 70,000 transnational brands operating or contracting plants outside their home countries.

Unfortunately, occupational health and safety (OHS) is not one of the ILO's fundamental rights at work. Ironically, however, OHS is the one area where the brands and contract factories have made efforts to improve conditions because OHS is "less political" than wages, hours or the right to form unions. But even these gains are undermined by the inherent contradictions in the transnationals' schizophrenic approach to supply chain management.

On one hand, the transnationals demand that their contract factories obey all local wage, work hours and workplace safety laws--or the particular corporate code of conduct if it is stricter. On the other hand, the transnationals provide no financial assistance for added costs, and demand ever-faster delivery for ever-lower prices for their product orders in a brutally predatory contract bidding process.

For this reason, perhaps the only thing the local contract factory owners and factory workers would agree on is that the transnationals' CSR programs often are little more than an elaborate public relations effort at reputation management.

OHS improvements

There have been improvements in OHS in the global supply chain over the last decade. These include credible life safety programs for fire and evacuation; elimination of visible safety hazards such as machine guarding and electrical hazards; improved housekeeping and lighting; and genuine attempts at improving ventilation, providing personal protective equipment and worker education.

These efforts have been most pronounced in directly owned and operated plants--as opposed to plants run by Korean, Taiwanese or Hong Kong contractors--in numerous producing countries. But not all directly-owned facilities are up to U.S. or even local standards, as sub-standard conditions in many maquiladora plants on the U.S.-Mexico border testify.

More numerous, however, are areas where OHS improvement efforts in the global supply chain have been inadequate or absent altogether--despite CSR programs and the attendant publicity. …

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