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?

1.3.7 Corporate connections continued

One issue that might be added by a workers' organisation or trade union, for instance, might be that of freedom of association and the right of workers to organise. Another might be the right to collective bargaining. In fact, the coverage of the codes of conduct vary considerably depending on who instigated the code and the parties involved (Pearson and Seyfang, 2001). Most codes of conduct, it seems, are top-down affairs, drawn up by the companies involved or by trade associations. Some have been negotiated with trade union officials and representatives from NGOs, often with the blessing of government bodies. Others have been drafted with the help of human rights advisers and other ethically minded bodies. Monitoring has also taken a variety of forms, ranging from in-house checks by the companies' own staff or specially commissioned private audits from independent firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, to local trade unions and branches of human rights groups, as well as various religious and humanitarian groups (Connor, 2002b; Jenkins et al., 2002). One of the most comprehensive pieces of monitoring to date has been the 2003 Social Responsibility Report produced by the Gap clothing company (Gap Inc., 2004).

Operating with an in-house team of ninety compliance officers, over a twelve-month period, Gap conducted around 8500 factory visits, the majority of which were in Asia. Figure 14 shows the regional breakdown of verified code violations for the Asian region. It makes for interesting reading, if only because the company itself admits that ‘few factories, if any, are in full compliance all of the time’ (Gap Inc., 2004, p. 12). China, the firm's largest sourcing market, is acknowledged as a particular difficulty, especially over outright verbal abuse and coercion, along with the concealment of overtime and the withholding of complete and accurate documentation. In other parts of Asia, in India, Cambodia, Vietnam and beyond, many of the issues highlighted earlier by the antisweatshop movement in recent decades are still to be found: violations over unsafe machinery, environmental hazards, excessive working hours, low wages, and so on.

Figure 14
Figure 14 (Map of Gap Inc. 2003 code violations, Asia (percentages of number of factories). Source: adapted from Gap Inc., 2004, pp. 14–15

Click to view a larger version of Figure 14 (map). [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

While 136 plants across the globe had their supply deals terminated by Gap this time around for a variety of violations, in a fragmented industry it would nonetheless seem that total compliance remains an elusive goal. Lern's factory may not have been among those which had their contracts cancelled, but her circumstances are typical of those that corporations such as Gap need to distance themselves from in order to show the consuming public that they are not connected to sweatshop abuses. Corporate codes of conduct and monitoring exercises are clearly demonstrations of good intent for many companies. They are essentially a counter to the defamations poured upon them by the antisweatshop movement: sufficient evidence that such companies have at least tried to meet their responsibilities to factory workers on the far side of the globe, even if hardships inevitably persist across the industry.

A rather different conclusion was reached, however, by Oxfam (2004), the Clean Clothes Campaign and various trade union groupings in their reviews of the efforts of the big sportswear firms to fulfil their distant obligations. For them, the ‘race to the bottom’ continues apace despite such companies recognising their responsibilities to the workers who make the trainers, tracksuits and T-shirts for them. At the same time that firms such as Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Puma and Fila adopt corporate codes of conduct leading to more enlightened working practices, they also demand greater flexibility, lower prices and shorter delivery times from their overseas suppliers. Put another way, those companies which have put in place codes and monitoring practices to tackle sweatshop abuses are, on this view, themselves producing the very conditions that encourage their violation. If the global retail firms insist on using the cheapest available source of labour, push for quicker turnaround times and demand flexibility in meeting orders of different sizes, then the factory managers, those such as Mr Chaiyapat in Extract 1 in Section 3.2, have no choice but to pressurise their workers to labour longer and faster, to cut corners on health and safety issues, and to accept illegally low pay levels.

In short, according to the antisweatshop campaigners, it is the instrumental business practices of the big retailers which impose unrealistic expectations on their suppliers if, as is supposed, they really do wish to curb the poor working conditions in their subcontracted factories overseas. The big retail companies, Oxfam and others insist, cannot have it both ways. They cannot have ever-lower production costs with ever-faster delivery times and expect factory managers to provide decent jobs at a living wage. It is just not possible to square the circle.


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