When a Picture Says a Thousand Words: Bangladesh
From the late 1980s, social accountability audits have become increasingly popular, largely as a result of offshore manufacturing. Throughout the 1990s, many U.S. household brand names were identified in exposés of child labor, failure to pay wages, forced labor and factory fires. To satisfy Corporate America’s shareholders’ burgeoning appetite for greater sourcing accountability from their companies, a proliferation of proprietary accountability programs ensued. While all focused primarily on human rights, few of them measured the same things in the same way.
What’s In An Audit? Semantics And Social Compliance
Over time, there have been shifts in not only what is evaluated during social accountability audits but also in what terms are used to identify the content of the audit. As one would expect, human rights are most certainly a component of these examinations, as is advocacy for the workers producing the products manufactured on behalf of brands whose programs are placed in the factory.
This approach became even more apparent in 2000, when the United Nations (U.N.) Global Compact Initiative was launched to standardize audit scope. The U.N. Global Compact, a voluntary corporate sustainability initiative, is administered through the U.N. Global Compact Office and receives support from six U.N. agencies, including the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights.
The Compact’s objective is “sustainability,” and its compliance standards are focused not only on human rights but also labor, environment and anti-corruption. By incorporating a four-pronged approach, the Compact has changed the conversation from one focused on “human rights abuses”—an idea that conjures notorious images of ruthless dictators and marauding ethnic clans—to one about “ethical manufacturing practices” that is rooted in laws written by the governments of the countries in which those laws are applied.
Altering the way we talk about conditions in the workplace—and, in this case, the factory—allows us to use the principles in the Charter to move beyond a black-and-white “human rights abuse” conversation to a practical discussion with an array of business tools for fixing the problem. By simply posing the questions using more accurate vocabulary, all parties involved can begin to envision different responses and meaningful corrective actions.