Today’s European Parliament discussion about factory fire safety in Bangladesh and other supplier countries is significant for the whole concept of corporate social responsibility. For the first time there is a serious attempt at this level to force multinational brands and retailers to require their suppliers to respect ILO Labour Conventions. The resolution has been put forward by a broad coalition of political groups which should mean that it becomes the opinion of the Parliament.
Even if the way to European legislation will still be long, this is an important initiative. It should lead to an active and constructive exchange about the best ways of ensuring the human rights and proper working conditions for supply chain workers.
The EU parliamentarians propose a new labeling standard to ensure that the labeled product has been produced in accordance with the core ILO labour standards. Whether this is useful can be discussed. Those of us who have worked actively with these issues know how difficult it is to develop a reliable social labeling system, if not outright impossible. Who would interpret whether conditions have been right. What about countries where freedom of association is not fully respected? How would the controls be built up? Would labels be required for all products and all producing countries, including the EU Member States, Switzerland, Norway, United States, Australia – just to mention a few.
I also doubt whether still another social standard would make sense. The problem today is rather that there are too many of them. This is a main reason for the Global Social Compliance Initiative GSCP driving an upward convergence and mutual recognition. If the EU starts to work for still another code, and establishes a labeling system, it will once again move resources away from improving workers’ conditions, to multiple auditing and added bureaucracy.
Still, the initiative itself is good and commendable. Also when it comes to fire safety, this should contribute to real improvements of today’s situation in many countries, particularly in Asia. The European countries need to make it clear to governments in some of the supplier countries that they have to improve their act considerably if they want their industries to enjoy a continued access to the EU markets.
Also private initiatives are continuing and evolving, initiated both by the corporate world itself or launched by civil society organisations. All those who are involved have to show the maturity and responsibility to cooperate rather than engage in attacking and questioning the seriousness or justification of what others are trying to do.
If something good is to come from the recent tragedies, it could perhaps be a more general acceptance that human rights are universal, that they have to be actively supported also in global supply chains, and that decent working conditions cannot be denied whatever competitive interests companies believe that they have.