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Can Companies Treat Their Employees Well Again?

antissweatshopcompanies can be audited for compliance with global accounting and quality control standards, why can’t their performance on human rights be quantified by a universal system?

That’s the concept behind the anti-sweatshop program of the Council on Economic Priorities, a New York think tank, which has created a standard by which the treatment of factory workers can be measured.

The Council, which deals with social and environmental issues facing corporations and is funded by corporate donors and foundations, in January began putting its program into motion by accepting applications from auditing firms seeking CEP accreditation. These firms, in turn, expect to be hired by companies to certify their factories and contractors as sweatshop-free. The standard can be applied to all manufacturing settings, including garment factories.

Speaking at a news conference last week, Alice Tepper Marlin, CEP president, said repeated sweatshop scandals highlight the need for a global human rights auditing standard. She referred specifically to a National Labor Committee report released last week accusing brand-name apparel and retail companies of producing goods in Chinese sweatshops and Nike’s woes as a target of repeated sweatshop allegations.

Tepper Marlin said many large corporations have demonstrated a desire to keep better tabs on working conditions at contractors and in their own factories by employing codes of conduct.

“But it is extremely difficult to insist on corporate responsibility when you are dealing with a network of hundreds, or even thousands, of vendors, contractors and suppliers spanning the globe,” she said.

CEP’s workplace standard, called Social Accountability 8000, endeavors to bring uniformity to human rights in global manufacturing. Individual factories would become accredited via one of the auditing firms, which would periodically reinspect facilities for compliance. The CEP, in turn, would dispatch its own teams of auditors to double-check audits on an unannounced basis. A list of factories complying with SA8000 standards will be made available to manufacturers and retailers.

CEP’s anti-sweatshop standard has been several years in the making and developed under the direction of an advisory board, with representatives from corporations, human rights groups and accounting firms. Among the corporations on the board are Avon Products, Reebok, The Body Shop, Eileen Fisher and Otto-Versand GmbH & Co., the German mail order house concern that owns Eddie Bauer and Spiegel.

CEP’s goals are similar to those of the White House anti-sweatshop task force, which is focusing on just the apparel and footwear industries. However, the task force’s blueprint is approaching the issue from another angle. Instead of individual factories, the panel plans to certify participating companies based on audits of all their manufacturing sites. The audits would be based on criteria enumerated by the panel.

Tepper Marlin said the CEP’s work is not in competition with that of the task force and that there’s plenty of room for other anti-sweatshop programs. Furthermore, she views adoption of the CEP auditing program as a slow-moving process. As it gains acceptance, then Tepper Marlin anticipates competitive forces taking over and human rights auditing with SA8000 to become part of doing business.

“We’re talking about significant long-term change. This isn’t something that is going to happen overnight,” she said.

What SA8000 will cost to companies doing business with accredited factories can’t yet be enumerated, said Tepper Marlin and Elisabeth Salina Amorini, chairman, Societe Generale de Surveillance, who also spoke at the news conference. SGS, based in Geneva, is a large quality control auditing firm operating in 140 countries. SGS has applied to be an SA8000 auditor. Salina Amorini said the bulk of costs would occur up front as companies work to bring their factories or contractors into compliance with SA8000 standards, spelled out in several guidance documents covering such things as worker health, safety, hours worked and wages.

The wage requirement — which insists factories pay enough to cover “basic needs with at least some discretionary income” — largely answers the call from human rights groups that factories pay a so-called living wage. Many firms have resisted having a set wage standard be part of a workplace monitoring effort. They contend wages should be set by the marketplace.

Tepper Marlin said SA8000 wages would be developed according to countries and regions within countries in order to accommodate varying standards of living. A wage would be calculated according to a formula: One worker’s wage would be judged enough to support half of an average family with 10 percent left over for discretionary income.

Many companies, particularly in the apparel and footwear industries, are already employing contractor monitoring programs.

A spokesman for Nike, which has had two accounting firms keep tabs on its factories since 1994, said company officials can’t yet weigh in on CEP’s proposal. Nike is a member of the White House task force.”We are always looking at new programs and better mousetraps, if such things exist,” he said

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