HUMAN RIGHTS: Chinese Manufacturers Convene on U.S. Labor Standards, November 1998
SOCIAL TOPICS (Archive): HUMAN RIGHTS
Chinese Manufacturers Convene on U.S. Labor Standards
Published, November 1998
by Heather White
When Verité began independent monitoring in China in 1995 we had a difficult time persuading our local Chinese contacts that working with us would not jeopardize their safety. Several well-qualified professionals who expressed support for our mission declined to participate out of concern for the potential personal risks it involved. While we did manage to put an exceptional auditor network in place, protecting the safety of our auditors continues to be a concern in environments like China where government officials and factory owners may try to obstruct the process or seek retaliation against auditors or workers who have disclosed illegal practices or human rights abuses.
A Daunting Challenge
With increased numbers of U.S. companies adopting codes of conduct and supplier standards, the question of how to address human rights issues at the factory level in China becomes more compelling. It is historically a sensitive issue because it involves politics and the tension in U.S.-China relations. Further, China does not allow NGOs (non-governmental organizations) within the country, which creates a unique challenge in seeking reliable domestic information sources outside official Chinese government agencies.
This past summer, with the convening of two conferences in China, we took the next step toward our goal of improving Chinese factories’ social performance. With financial support from United States Trust and others, we were able to sponsor two events for the specific purpose of educating Chinese suppliers about U.S. corporate codes of conduct, including shareholders’ and customers’ expectations in the areas of human rights and labor standards in the workplace.
In planning the conferences, one of the first challenges Verité faced was what to call the meetings in order to attract participants. We felt it necessary to avoid using language in our invitations that might imply that politics or the U.S. perspective on human rights in China was on the agenda. In China, human rights is a political issue, and most business people will politely avoid the topic even in private conversations with foreigners.
We also wanted our events to be free from Chinese governmental interference or scrutiny in order to facilitate open discussion and generate interest among participants to join a program that in the long term would translate into benefits for their businesses. We titled the conferences “New Standards and Expectations in International Trade Relationships.” Four hundred Chinese companies, agencies, and provincial enterprises were invited to attend free of charge. Approximately 100 people actually participated. The purpose of the sessions was to orient Chinese suppliers on the issue of labor standards from the perspective of U.S. stakeholders. We have generally found in our interviews with Chinese factory managers that they have little understanding of why their U.S. buyers have suddenly created expectations (primarily in the form of paperwork) around compliance issues. Never before were labor practices an issue in managing U.S.-sourcing relationships.
We began the meetings with an overview of the changing U.S. legal environment, describing the legislation that has been proposed concerning child labor, homeworkers’ compensation, and forced labor, which some are arguing includes compulsory overtime.
Passage of the new legislation and wider enforcement of existing laws is already translating into new requirements that suppliers guarantee that their products are produced under fair labor conditions. Videos on the Nike campaign and exposés on sweatshop labor conditions in Saipan (where factories use migrant workers from China) were also presented to show the audience what kinds of media coverage the issues are receiving in the U.S. market.
A Dialogue Begins
The 90-minute question and answer period at both events could have been much longer. The open, participative atmosphere even made it possible to have a discussion about the implications of compliance expectations regarding prison labor issues. I was pleased that persons in the audience were willing to bring up the subject.
One of the key goals of the conferences in China was to compile a database of companies that operate in accordance with Chinese laws and are willing to be audited by Verité to verify compliance. The Chinese legal code is well developed and provides workers essentially all of the protections called for by U.S. corporate codes of conduct.
The conferences enabled us to begin the dialogue whereby Verité with the assistance of others can start to create incentives for Chinese manufacturers to abide by local laws in producing their goods. Many companies already do, but we’re finding that factories producing for the U.S. market often fall short. More than 50 percent of the factories employing 120,000 workers that we’ve inspected failed to comply. Yet improvements often are inexpensive to implement and can have an important impact on the quality of the working conditions. With support from our clients and private donors, Verité encourages suppliers to voluntarily make improvements as an effort to attract those buyers now incorporating compliance-driven criteria in building supplier relationships.
To begin, we purposely held both conferences in northern China where our field experience has found manufacturer compliance with national labor laws to be generally higher. The Special Economic Zones in Southern China pose a much greater challenge, due to third-party ownership of factories and their distance from centralized oversight. The majority of companies producing for major U.S. apparel, toy, footwear, and sporting goods companies are located in the southern part of the country, in factories owned primarily by foreign investors who operate outside of Chinese legal requirements.
Despite our efforts to maintain a low profile with the Chinese government at the conferences, we discovered that we were being filmed with a hidden video camera by an unknown participant. We suspected he was from the Public Security Bureau. Upon sharing the information about the filming with our local colleague, his reply was “I am not afraid. I am trying to do something positive for my country.”
Based on the enthusiastic response received from the July events, Verité is planning a third conference for manufacturers in Southern China in the spring of 1999. For more information about Verité call 413-253-9227 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heather White is the founder and executive director of Verité (Verification in Trade and Export), a nonprofit organization offering inspection and verification of non-abusive labor practices at factories overseas. Spanning three continents, Verité’s evaluation and monitoring services in the past year touched the lives of 125,000 workers producing goods for U.S. consumers.
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