Ask Cambodian Workers: What Good Has ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ Done?

Jeff Ballinger

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Garment workers at a factory in Phnom Penh, in October 2006.

A recent blog post by Auret van Heerden titled Where is CSR Heading?” begs a really big question: What good has corporate social responsibility” been for workers, up to now? Sweatshop abuses are Exhibit A and that is where van Heerden plies his trade as head of the Fair Labor Association” in Washington.

Founded in 1996 as the Apparel Industry Partnership – a desperate attempt by Bill Clinton to gloss over the depredations of supply-chain cheats and bullies producing for big American brands – the FLA has produced helpful (to the industry) reports by van Heerden such as Solving the Problem of Declining Wages”. Van Heerden’s post starts, The global economic crisis has shaken the manufacturing industry to its core…” which means what, exactly? No more Mr. Nice Guy?

The big brands’ record during the pre-crisis (fat profits) decades is reprehensible. Since the earliest code of conduct” requirements for supplier factories (i.e., Levi’s, Reebok, Nike and Mattel), labor rights have declined nearly to the vanishing point in production-for-export areas around the world.

Flexibilization through contract-work has reached epidemic proportions; millions of workers are finding work in foreign countries in situations akin to bonded labor; factory managers skipping out on severance payments owed to workers is becoming more commonplace – in short, work is becoming more and more precarious with each passing year, even as corporations tweak their codes” and trumpet new breakthroughs in free association” rights in their supply chains. Parasitic social auditors” – some operating in an ostensible non-profit” mode – post thousands of factory reports each year while workers continue to strike and corrupt governments jail and harass independent union activists.

Tens of thousands of workers in Cambodia and Bangladesh have protested numerous times over the last ten weeks, due to expected national minimum wage adjustments (which are behind schedule); their wages are never raised through the dignified means of collective bargaining. Look back to 1998 when a prominent FLA member (Patagonia’s Kevin Sweeney) wrote in the Los Angeles Times: We Can Work Up To a Living Wage.” So, what’s happened over the past dozen years? Can you imagine consumers’ reaction to an expensive Patagonia t-shirt with a hang-tag reading: Wow. We’re so sorry! We thought that we could promise you that workers making this shirt were being paid at least a subsistence wage, but it has proved to be really difficult to get our suppliers to agree. You can go to the Fair Labor Association web-site and read that we are not really to blame…”

The logic is seductively simple: A global brand meticulously monitors its’ supply chain because conscientious consumers – informed by the latest technologies – will punish it at the retail level for any transgression. Rather, according to Jeffrey Swartz, the CEO of Timberland, consumers don’t care at all about workers’ rights in the factories producing for the footwear and apparel company. In an interview earlier this year, he said, With regard to human rights, the consumer expectation today is somewhere in the neighborhood of, don’t do anything horrible or despicable’… if the issue doesn’t matter much to the consumer population, there’s not a big incentive for the consumer-minded CEOs to act, proactively.” In a 2008 interview he mused about his desire to seduce consumers to care” so that his CSR report was not mere corporate cologne”. The dirty little secret” of CSR is that nobody reads these reports; one of Sun Microsystems’ team lamented the fact that only 247 out of 38,000 fellow-employees even bothered to download its 2007 CSR report.

Think CSR works on the environment side of sustainability”? One answer spawned by the BP spill appeared in a Washington Post op-ed last week, culprit is the cult of CSR… a fetish encouraged by the philanthropies that feed off it.” I might not go so far as the opinion-writer, Chrystia Freeland (global editor at large for Thomson Reuters), when she suggests that, many of the business disasters of the past 24 months have been facilitated by the mini-industry of corporate social responsibility,” but I certainly do believe that CSR has been an indispensible partner to business-as-usual for the past 15 years of unprecedented corporate malfeasance.

Good sources of info are the US Steelworkers, Cambodia’s Community Legal Education Center and the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum.

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

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Jeff Ballinger is a veteran anti-sweatshop campaigner whose writing has been published in Harper’s, NY Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Dissent, Brown Economic Review and the Los Angeles Times. He is currently on a research fellowship in the political science department of McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario.
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