Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?
Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

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Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

1.3.5 Corporate connections

As I mentioned in Section 2, what was happening in the factories of overseas contractors was said to have appeared remote to most, if not all, the chief executive officers of the clothing multinationals in the 1980s. Overseas contractors were selected on the basis of market price, quality and reliability, not on whether forced or child labour happened to be employed to stitch the product together. However, all that changed in the early 1990s when the geographical ties between the big retailers and their overseas suppliers were made known to a wider global audience. By mapping out the connections between the subcontracting practices of leading international clothes retailers and sweatshop conditions elsewhere, activists within the movement claimed that the leading firms could be seen to benefit directly from the misfortune of others in the poorest parts of the world. The image proved to be a dogged one and, as indicated, firms such as Nike, Gap and Levi Strauss found themselves under intense public pressure to account for their connection to sweatshop conditions.

A major response, as you may have gleaned from Lern's story in Extract 1, was the development of corporate codes of conduct. The codes themselves amounted to an explicit acceptance by the big retailers that they bore some responsibility for the distant factories which laboured indirectly under their name. Usually voluntary in practice, many of the codes cover conventions on the minimum age of employment, acceptable working conditions, health and safety measures, hours of work and pay, and operate on the understanding that they should be displayed openly on the factory floor so that all contracted workers are fully aware of their rights and entitlements. Levi Strauss was the first big corporation to develop its code of conduct, (Business Partner) Terms of Engagement, in 1991 after it was accused of taking advantage of Chinese prison labour at one of its overseas suppliers, followed by Nike in 1992 after negative publicity about labour malpractices among its Indonesian subcontractors (Jenkins et al., 2002).

Nike's code of conduct is reproduced in Extract 2 in a shortened form and consists of a checklist of standards and practices which its overseas contractors are expected to meet.

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