One of the most insidious aspects of the global CSR machine, ‘social standards certification,’ adds a veneer of legitimacy to a procurement system that, frankly, doesn’t even believe its own spin. It is hard to imagine a more gross, tragic, spectacular and senseless failure of this system than the recent garment factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan. On 12 September 2012 at least 259 people (over 300, according to local trade union estimates) lost their lives in one of the worst industrial accidents of our time.
“… Fire extinguisher and fire safety buckets were available in sufficient quantity… Fire extinguishers were visible and accessible to all workers. Access to fire extinguishers and passages leading to exits was maintained free from any kind of obstruction. Primary exits and emergency exits are kept unlocked while employees are inside facility.. “
Yet, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, “The factory was not legally registered with the Pakistan government and had failed to provide the majority of workers with employment contracts. The high death toll resulted from inadequate fire exits, blocked staircases and barred windows, preventing many workers from escaping the blaze.”
SA8000 is a ‘social accountability’ standard developed by New York-based certification firm Social Accountability International (SAI). It sets benchmarks in relation to “child labor, forced and compulsory labor, health and safety, freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, discrimination, disciplinary practices, working hours, remuneration.” SAI, a non-profit (but with significant industry funding) whose stated mission is “to advance the human rights of workers around the world,” have instigated an internal ‘investigation‘ into the incident. As far as we can gather, there are no plans to make the results of this investigation public.
So how did a factory, which was unregistered, which did not have proper hiring practices, and which violated OH&S standards so flagrantly get certified?
There are many problems with this system and here’s the first: it is built around notified inspections – Auditor: “We’ll come to the factory on Wednesday at 9am and we will be checking to make your fire exists are not obscured by piles of clothes.” Factory manager: *better move those piles of clothes* – and interviewing people about work conditions at their place of work where, let’s face it, people are unlikely to raise serious complaints for fear of losing their jobs.
Just make sure the place looks ok and folks keep quiet while the inspector’s hanging around, and you’ll get the certificate. Not every factory treats certification like this, but the point is that it’s a very easy system to take advantage of. Yet it’s held out as so much more. And because of that, it’s a morally and logically corrupt model, which in this context, as the Karachi fire so tragically demonstrates, it’s downright dangerous.
The factory was owned and operated by local manufacturing company Ali Enterprises. A chilling detail from the New York Times report on the fire: “Instead of letting the workers escape.., plant managers forced them to stay in order to save the company’s stock: piles of stonewashed jeans, destined for Europe. “
The jeans were being produced for export to German budget clothing retailer Kik, German newspaper Der Spiegel reported this week, to be sold in Germany for €15.99. Yet again, we see the high price of cheap clothing.
Here’s another problem with the certification system: it creates an additional layer of supply chain responsibility dissipation – upper level supply chain actors rely on the fact that supplier factories have been ‘certified’ to an official sounding standard to argue that their legal responsibility stops there. Buyer company *waving certification in the air*: “Not our fault, we had these other guys go in and write us this fancy note that says everything was in top shape!”
The garment supply chain is very different from the electronics supply chain I wrote about last week. For one thing, we consumers have power in this sector, through being informed (reading labels about where products are sourced, for example), through boycotts & substitutions (substituting Kik’s products with second-hand jeans or those of brands with a proven commitment to ethical sourcing), and also through exercising common sense. If you see never-worn jeans selling for less than €20 (or even €50!), that should set off alarm bells that should, at the very least, prompt you to make supply chain inquiries.
We’ll follow the investigations into what happened in Karachi and keep you updated as more details emerge. But what might we learn from it at this stage?
We must be skeptical about private certifications. This is particularly so where ‘audits’ are conducted on a ‘prior warning’ basis by for-profit firms operating under standards set, and accreditation given, by private standards bodies, no matter how ‘human rights friendly’ they appear. Certifications obtained through such a structure must not be used as get out of jail free card for buyer companies whose supply chains are implicated in human rights violations.
Above all, that we need to demand transparency and accountability in the social certification industry. What is the relationship among Western companies (like Kik), overseas suppliers (like Ali Enterprises), auditors (like RINA) and standards developers (like SAI)? Who pays for their services? What are their terms of payment? What is involved in the accreditation process? How are site audits conducted? By whom are they conducted?
Can we really allow companies to rely on private, for-profit actors to independently and accurately report on local work conditions?