As most quality professionals know, quality products usually aren't produced in conditions where workers are unhappy. Long hours, unsafe working conditions, unfair wages, discrimination and arduous labor can create work environments where quality and employee satisfaction prove rare.
However, ensuring fair treatment of employees in today's complex business environment can seem as daunting as it was a century ago. Numerous stakeholders -- suppliers, manufacturers, buying agents, contractors and subcontractors -- share the responsibility of safeguarding worker rights, but sometimes the efforts of these various groups fall short for any number of reasons. The problem may lie in greed and cruelty, as it has so often in the past, or it may stem from something else, such as entrenched cultural differences.
To address and, hopefully, eliminate unfair and inhumane labor practices, Social Accountability 8000, a new international and inter-industry standard, has been created. Based on ISO 9000, SA8000 targets workplace conditions in factories around the world. The standard was written by an advisory board of 25 people, including representatives from the Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency, Amnesty International, the National Child Labor Committee, KPMG, SGS International Certification Services, Avon Products, Toys R Us, Reebok, The Body Shop, clothing company Eileen Fisher, Amalgamated Bank and the International Textile Workers Union.
The difference between SA8000 and its cousins ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 is that this new standard includes performance requirements in addition to system requirements. SA8000 requires that employers pay wages sufficient to meet workers' basic needs, provide a safe working environment, not employ child or forced labor, and not require employees to regularly work longer than 48 hours per week.
"One of the problems in monitoring working conditions or human rights has been to move beyond the anecdotal," emphasizes Eileen Kohl Kaufman, program director for the Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency. "It's very hard to have any sense of what conditions were like last week or have any confidence in what they will be like next week. We felt that by merging the performance audit with a quality systems concept, we'd be able to provide a system that could give more confidence and more comparability, both across industries and across countries."
Many companies have developed codes of conduct that promote basic rights and prohibit such practices as child labor, prison labor and discrimination. As a result, hundreds of codes now exist, a situation that not only poses difficulties for suppliers but is extremely inefficient. "The effort to combat serious violations of workers' rights is thus hampered both by a lack of clear definitions of terms and by a lack of consensus on the basic benchmarks in codes themselves," states CEPAA's framework for the standard.
Kaufman agrees. "It's difficult for the people from the customer companies who are responsible for monitoring the code of conduct as well as vouching for working conditions," she observes. "It's overwhelming."
SA8000's certification process will resemble that of ISO 9000; accrediting certification firms to the standard began in late January. The standard will require certification bodies to educate themselves about the facilities they certify and the regions where those facilities are located. If a registrar wants to certify a facility, it must develop a process for auditing the facility's compliance to the standard. Potential SA8000-accredited registrars include BVQI, ITS Intertek Services, SGS-ICS and ACTS Testing Services.
The standard has four major sections; the fourth, titled "Social Accountability Requirements," includes nine subsections that cover such topics as child labor, forced labor, health and safety, freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, discrimination, disciplinary practices, working hours, compensation and management systems.
Any organization wishing to subscribe to the standard must not engage in or support child labor, which SA8000 specifies as any work by a child younger than 15 years of age (or, in special cases, age 14, in accordance with developing-country exceptions under ILO Convention 138). Nor is forced labor -- defined in the standard as "all work or service that is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty for which said person has not offered him/herself voluntarily" -- anywhere allowed. Likewise, companies are required to provide safe, sanitary working conditions for employees.
Under the standard's requirements, personnel must be allowed to join trade unions of their choice and bargain collectively for better wages and conditions. Race, caste, national origin, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, union membership or union affiliation all are listed as unacceptable reasons for hiring, compensation, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement. Personnel must not be subject to corporal punishment, mental or physical coercion, or verbal abuse by employers. SA8000 specifies that employees shall not be required to work in excess of 48 hours per week; they also must be provided with at least one day off for every seven-day period.
The standard breaks new ground in subsection eight, which outlines compensation requirements. Section 8.1 states, "The company shall ensure that wages paid for a standard working week shall meet at least legal or industry minimum standards and shall always be sufficient to meet basic needs of personnel and to provide some discretionary income."
"The Need for Standards" section of the standard's framework document contends that universal standards offer many advantages, including procedural consistency across audits, development of corporate management systems to guarantee social accountability, a market incentive to play fair and permanent processes for involving interested parties (e.g., workers, human rights organizations and unions).
However, another, more pressing reason for SA8000's creation exists, according to Dorianne Beyer, general counsel of the National Child Labor Committee and an active participant in the standard's creation. "There has been a worldwide shift in awareness and in thinking about child labor," notes Beyer. "There is public-consumer awareness and public-consumer demand, which then become corporate awareness and corporate demand, for assurances that the products we buy are not the result of exploitative child labor."
The problem of child labor
In numerous countries, workers -- many of them children -- continue to toil for low wages in unsafe environments. In May 1997, leaders from six Southeast Asian nations and India agreed to work to end child labor by 2010. The goal won't be met easily: A recent report by the International Labour Organization estimates that 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work in developing countries; of that number, 120 million children work full-time.
The report goes on to say that Asia is home to 61 percent of child workers, or more than 153 million children. Eighty million children (32 percent) work in Africa and 17.5 million (7 percent) in Latin America.
Other parts of the world aren't immune to the problem, either. Child labor exists in Eastern Europe, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. A recent investigative report conducted by The Associated Press identified child labor as a continuing presence and problem in some U.S. industries, particularly agriculture. Children pick chilies in New Mexico, harvest apples in upstate New York, pick beans in Florida, pack cherries in Washington state, work construction in New York City, pack peaches in Illinois, cut grapes in California and work in sweatshops around the country.
Douglas L. Kruse, a Rutgers University economist, worked with the AP to estimate the number of children working illegally in the United States. His findings: 290,200 children worked illegally in the United States last year; 59,600 of them were under age 14; more than 13,000 worked in garment sweatshops. By using child laborers rather than legal workers, employers saved $155 million.
Compared with the 2 million children who worked in the United States a century ago, these numbers may seem small. But in the larger context of a globally conscious, humane market, they are astronomical. Since Congress' introduction of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which set out to end child labor, the practice of employing children in harsh environments has declined significantly. However, the decline began to level off in 1995.
Perhaps most disturbing is that, in its child labor investigation, the AP linked these illegal and unethical practices to high-profile, mainstream companies, including Costco, H.J. Heinz, Newman's Own, J.C. Penney, Pillsbury, Sears, Wal-Mart and Campbell Soup Co. When confronted with the information that their suppliers were using child labor, the majority of these companies condemned the practice; in the case of Newman's Own, actor Paul Newman investigated his suppliers personally and, upon finding child labor present, switched suppliers.
The Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency, a nongovernmental organization, was established early in 1997 to drive SA8000's development. CEPAA is affiliated with the Council on Economic Priorities, founded in 1969 and dedicated to impartially analyzing corporate social performance while promoting excellence in corporate citizenship. CEPAA and the SA8000 advisory board worked on the standard for nearly a year, beginning in February 1997. Meetings were held every six to eight weeks.
"We were very mindful of including China in our thinking about how to create this standard," recalls Beyer on the subject of Asian participation. "The China issue was never far away on any standard, on any words, on any terminology. I can't say that we broke the back of the China problem. I don't think we can in a standard."
John Brooks, president of SGS-ICS, acted in an advisory role for SA8000's management system elements. He gathered comments from various board members and others who reviewed the standard confidentially. "Based on that input, I advised CEPAA on the final wording," he says.
Public comment was necessarily limited due to time constraints imposed by the standard's financial backers, notes Brooks. However, another reason for keeping the standard closely guarded was to protect the effort itself. By delaying the standard's publication as long as possible, the advisory board hoped to produce a better, more complete document that would please as many stakeholders as possible, explains Brooks.
The Body Shop, an international manufacturer and retailer of skin and hair care products, also took an active role in drafting SA8000. The company always has been interested in the people who manufacture its products, says Alistair Jackson, The Body Shop's drafting committee representative.
"We've become increasingly active in inspecting the manufacturing facilities of our suppliers," says Jackson. "When we became aware of [the standard's] process, we were quite interested in being involved. We would like to see that everybody applies the same standard. From the vendors' perspective, it makes life a lot easier. We're very conscious that we already require quite a lot from our suppliers in other areas, particularly in the environmental area and animal protection."
The motivations for companies to subscribe to the standard are many, according to SA8000's various authors. "One of the fundamental issues about this process is it's about businesses being more accountable for the impact that they have up their supply chain, rather than just within their own facilities," asserts Jackson.
Brooks maintains that the supply base will be driven from the desire to be seen as "good actors" and to gain credibility in the eyes of customers and stakeholders. "I think it is an excellent standard," adds Brooks. "It is far better than anything else that's ever been published before in this area."
SA8000 underwent four trial audits last summer in New York, Pennsylvania, Mexico and Honduras, respectively. The document itself is still open to revisions and suggestions, but Kaufman says the advisory board is holding the standard in its current form long enough to get the system going and to finalize the guidance document and application procedures.
Kaufman doesn't expect the standard will require a label on products to signify certification to SA8000. "We're not attesting to the quality of the product," she explains. "It could still be shoddy goods. But if it's produced in an SA8000-certified factory, we know that certain rules of working conditions were followed."
Brooks believes major companies will drive adoption of the standard and that it will appeal to many organizations for different reasons. "The standard is sufficiently robust that, as with ISO 9000, if properly interpreted, it would be satisfactory for implementation in an organization of any size, shape, form, in any industry sector," he claims.
James McKinnon, ITS Intertek's global manager for SA8000, heads up an international team getting ITS ready to become an SA8000-accredited registrar. Companies like his will have to go through a specific process, similar to that used to set up ISO 9000 certification services, he explains. "We started working with SA8000 toward the middle of last year," he says. "ITS is interested in it because it's a natural extension of our current business streams of inspection, testing and certification."
McKinnon believes the standard will affect the apparel and toy industries the most and may eventually move into the electronics industry. "It should appeal to the consumers directly, when they see and have confidence that the garment or toy they're buying is not only safe for children, but hasn't been produced by children," he contends.
Tom DeLuca, vice president of product development and safety assurance at Toys R Us, reveals that his company issued its own conduct standard to its suppliers, an estimated 5,000 worldwide, in early 1997. The company, which is a signatory of SA8000, worked with CEP to ensure that its standard closely paralleled SA8000 in its requirements and auditability, says DeLuca. Because of the similarities, DeLuca doesn't expect Toys R Us will issue a mandate to its suppliers for compliance to SA8000. "We would be sending a mixed message if we suddenly issued a second code," he comments.
Avon, another participant in drafting SA8000, appears willing to make a solid commitment to enforce the standard. In an interview with Business Week, Fitzroy Hilaire, Avon's director of supplier development, disclosed that his company intends to certify its 19 factories to SA8000 and will ask its suppliers to do likewise.
SA8000's potential for positive change hinges on its ability to imitate ISO 9000, which has revolutionized business management and process improvement. Hopefully the new standard can accomplish what ILO and even the Fair Labor Standards Act have failed to do -- eradicate, once and for all, abusive child labor and ensure that workers around the world are treated with economic and social dignity.
The standard's possible secondary benefits are no less worthwhile. Enforcing humane conditions in factories may lead to a higher standard of products on the market. Consumer consciousness may increase, too, as people realize their power to change conditions in other parts of the world simply by selecting products that come from SA8000-registered suppliers.
Registrars interested in becoming accredited to the standard may request application packs by contacting the CEPAA at telephone (212) 358-7697, fax (212) 358-7723 or e-mail SA8000@ aol.com. CEPAA's address is 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003.
About the authors
Elizabeth R. Larson is news editor of Quality Digest. Bonnie Cox is an editorial assistant at Quality Digest.