Desperate Need for a Real, Independent Factory Inspection & Monitoring System

ACORN International Citizen Wealth Financial Justice International Labor Organizing

Photo from September 11, 2012 shows fire-fighters trying to control the blaze at the garment factory in Karachi in one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters.—Photo by AFP

Quito   It is impossible to read the tragic tales of sweatshop fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan without coming to the conclusion that literally the very best of intentions have in fact “paved the road to hell.”

The story by Declan Walsh and Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times, Certified Safe, A Factory in Karachi Quickly Burns,” is a devastating indictment not only of the very nature of the sweatshop industry and its outsourcing supply chain, but similarly of the very nature of the cozy corporate relationships of the compliance and monitoring system and its arms length outsourcing of inspections.  Sadly in this case, a share of the huge and tragic responsibility falls at the doorstep of Alice Tepper Marlin, who I have known for decades and who assisted ACORN campaigns with an earlier nonprofit in the 1970’s.  Her organization, Social Accountability International, issues certifications for more than 3000 factories around the world employing over a one-million workers.  The certifications are performed in various areas including health, safety, and labor conditions.  The factory fire killing more than 200 in Karachi had received SAI’s industry standard certification SA8000 only three weeks before the conflagration.  It turns out that the certification was done by a subcontractor of a subcontractor of SAI and in any case was based on a determination made without visiting the factory at all!

Walsh and Greenhouse pointedly ask:

Does industry-backed “social auditing,” which purports to safeguard the lives and working conditions of some of the world’s poorest workers, really work?

The answer is clearly and resoundingly, NO!

The problems start with the fact that industry, government, and NGO funding, which is usually the same thing – government funding, all have an interest in creating something that looks good, regardless of whether it is good, particularly if that means higher costs for real compliance, a tougher time for trading partners,  and higher costs for consumers in the home country.  A compliance and monitoring system that is not independent simply cannot do the job.  This is not a matter of the good, failing to achieve a standard of perfection, but of a corporate whitewashing rationalization of providing something slightly “better than nothing,” then pretending and failing to achieve a definition of being good.   All of which means that if the SA8000 is the “industry standard,” “best practices” benchmark issued by Social Accountability International and based on hands-off, industry-dependent relationships, and “paper” certifications not even backed up by direct visits and accountable SAI personnel, this is not a system but an artifice and has to come down and be replaced by something real and effective.  The cruel irony that the Pakistani factory owners are offering as their jail cell defense the shield of the SA8000 is a knife to the heart of this charade.

As painful as it was to read about the tragic deaths of these workers and the waste of their very lives as they pursued a simple livelihood so that others could buy cheaper jeans, it was equally sad to read how weak are the rationalizations we offer as nonprofits from whom so much is expected and by whom so much is promised.

Ms. Tepper Marlin said the catastrophic Ali Enterprises fire shook her deeply. After missing some crucial warning flags until it was too late, she and her organization are now rethinking their whole monitoring system.  Nonetheless, she still vigorously defends that system, saying that it has been vital to setting and safeguarding baseline standards for supply-chain workers in poor countries, particularly those with corruption-prone governments and weak unions.  “We think we do make a difference,” Ms. Tepper Marlin said. “We’re just trying to help get a culture of compliance.”

Unfortunately, making “a difference” and “…trying to help get a culture of compliance” is a woefully inadequate internal standard when representing to the public and consumers that the workers are adequately protected and compensated.   Worse this all seems to have been what organizers call “a mail-in,” which in our lingo, means a mirage, a promise rather than a real member.

Social Accountability International does not inspect the factories itself. It has a compliance affiliate that licenses firms to do the actual work. One such firm is RINA, an Italian corporation founded in 1861 to inspect ships. In Pakistan, the process was further subcontracted: RINA’s local operations are run by RI&CA, which inspected Ali Enterprises last summer.

Not only was the monitoring outsourced twice, but it seems that the actual SAI certifications, the SA8000, were allowed to be issued directly by the subcontracted outfits, which had entirely different goals and objectives than SAI, as market driven, for profits, trying to get work.  Walsh and Greenhouse don’t directly ask, but I have to wonder if SAI really knew much about any of the factories it was warranting with its “certification” of supposed high, or at least acceptable, standards?

Unions and other outside, independent observers were unanimous in their call for complete reforms and a real system.

Mr. Nadvi [an expert on monitoring at the University of Manchester in England] recommended that the voluntary monitoring system be replaced by a government-run system developed in consultation with industry and the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency.

Frankly, I’m not sure that’s even good enough, but at least it’s a giant step forward to creating real protections for workers and some real security for consumers, who are committed to ethical purchasing and industry.  This is also the subject that Tepper Marlin teaches at NYU’s Business School, so I might expect that she would embrace real reform here.  Instead her response seems to be a standard off-the-shelf rationalization for the extremes of globalization:

But Ms. Tepper Marlin warned that jettisoning certification programs could cause an exodus of apparel orders and jobs from Pakistan and Bangladesh.  “This type of trade and development has played an important role in bringing people out of poverty,” she said.

Since Social Accountability International certifies in 66 countries, I find it curious that she would worry these two areas, Pakistan and Bangladesh, particularly?  The whole point of globalization is not just lower prices and a race to the bottom is it?  Are there no countries where the certification system really works and can vouch for real standards rather than some weak “culture of compliance?”   These jobs have been fleeing from countries for a long time, first from England, later from the United States and Europe, and now increasingly from Latin America to Asia, including not only these areas but certainly India, Vietnam, Cambodia, and elsewhere.

Somehow the buck has to stop.  Somewhere it has to stop.  Why not here?  Why not, now?

Tepper Marlin finally asks of her and the industry’s certification system:

Do we really want to say that we should move away from it because there are some factories with problems?

How can there possibly be any doubt after all of these deaths and all of these tragedies implicating inspectors, monitors, their industry supporters and their nonprofit apologists, that this is not an isolated problem involving a few bad factors “with problems” but an illusion in the clothes of a system?  The answer to Tepper Marlin’s question about whether to throw this out and start over, as she must certainly know, can only be: