Cut throat contracts sink ‘social responsibility’ claims

CORPORATE IRRESPONSIBILITY Multinationals like Samsung do not always welcome criticism of their safety and environmental record.

Are the policies paraded by brand name companies, proclaiming their virtuous factory floor to shop floor operations worldwide, really worth the paper they are written on?

The occupational cancer and suicide scandals that have hit microelectronics firms operating in Asia are the latest to cast doubt on the supply chain oversight employed by multinationals to police labour, safety and environmental standards.

The ‘corporate social responsibility (CSR)’ policies of companies such as Apple and Samsung are not delivering in many of the Asian factories actually producing the goods, says global safety campaigner Garrett Brown.

The multinationals are acutely aware of the need to be perceived as caring companies. Samsung’s website notes: “We have designated economic, environmental and social responsibilities as the key elements of our sustainable management.”

And Apple’s investor relations assurances are equally uncompromising. The introduction to its ‘Responsible supplier management’ webpages notes: “Apple is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility in everything we do. The companies we do business with must provide safe working conditions, treat employees fairly, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made.”

But the high road commitments of Samsung, Apple and a slew of other high tech multinationals are called into question with a worrying frequency – and Garrett Brown suggests troubling questions will remain while contractors in low wage economies produce the goods sold by western household names.

Writing in the US-based Occupational Health & Safety magazine, Brown notes the codes of conduct promoting worker well-being fall foul of “their contradictory business model, and the near-zero participation by workers in factory health and safety programmes.”

Brown, who co-ordinates the US-based Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, claims the “standard features” of these global supply chains – low pay, long hours, high production quotas, piecework and harsh management regimes – “have produced high levels of workplace stress, significant occupational illnesses, and traumatic injuries.”

CSR programmes will continue to fail while suppliers compete on price to attract business from multinationals, he says.

“The top-down, management systems-focused CSR programmes of international brands and their contract manufacturers have failed to bring significant, sustained improvements to the actual factory floor. No matter what the codes of conduct call for, monitoring of them is ‘gamed’ by both contractor factory managers and ‘independent, third-party’ auditors, and actual conditions have only marginally improved over the last decade.

“The promises of CSR programmes – now a $40 billion-a-year business globally – have been fatally undermined by the ‘iron triangle’ of lowest possible per-unit price, highest possible quality, and fastest possible delivery times. Contractor factories, not provided with financial support for CSR policies required by the brands, instead face slashed profit margins and additional costs that can be made up only by further squeezing their own labour force.”

And the “social” element of CSR programmes is barely in evidence, as workers in the giant Asian factories – some are the size of towns – “have been completely left on the sidelines in plant OHS [occupational health and safety] programmes when they could be playing critical roles in conducting inspections and accident investigations, verifying hazard corrections, and providing peer training to co-workers.

“No effective OHS programme can built without the active participation of informed and empowered workers in China, or Korea, or anywhere else.”

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