Codes of conduct have largely failed to improve compliance with international labor standards (ILS), in part because existing monitoring systems are not effective. The multiplicity of codes has hindered compliance. Social auditors are not governed by adequate standards, and they lack training in basic labor rights issues. Just as important, workers and unions need to be involved in the monitoring process. Widespread establishment of independent trade unions could solve the problem of noncompliance with ILS.
Mr. Kearney noted that horrendous abuses of workers occur every day in the supply chain of the apparel industry as workers are punished and abused for simply exercising, or trying to exercise, rights contained in ILS. These violations occur in Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Cambodia, China, Lesotho, India, and Pakistan, and the majority of those whose rights are violated are women. Exploitation of labor in the apparel industry is happening because of intense competitive forces emanating from retailers in the United States and Europe, the increasing number of factory owners who are multinational corporations (MNCs) and owe allegiance to no country, the failure of governments to enforce their own labor legislation for fear of driving away foreign investment, and the apathy of consumers in the West who simply don’t care under what conditions a product is made.
Labor rights abuses are occurring in a context of more than 180 International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions and Declarations, the ILO Tripartite Declaration concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and more than 10,000 codes of conduct, whether these are company codes, multi-company codes, or multi-stakeholder codes. For the past decade the emphasis has been on voluntary measures by business instead of mandatory and enforceable laws, and this approach has failed miserably. Many codes are shams, focused on welfare issues rather than core labor rights and designed to protect brand-name integrity, not to affect the way factories are managed. For instance, there are only 150 SA8000-certified plants in the apparel industry because this program requires the recognition and implementation of the ILO’s 1998 Declaration. In fact,