you're Levi Straus, Reebok or Mattel (or a foot soldier for any multinational
apparel retailer, shoe company or toy maker), and you're scouting
for new factory sites. After all, this is the age of capitalist global
hopscotch, where margins are constantly under assault and a better
deal is just a government incentive or devalued currency away.
So how do you choose between Macau and Morocco, Sri Lanka and El Salvador?
The cold reality is that the main lure is dirt-cheap wages. But now
that activist groups and journalists ask embarrassing questions about
child labour standards, environmental conditions, pregnancy benefits,
collective bargaining rights and the like, companies are looking to
keep their noses clean.
Consider Nike. It has 35 contract factories in Taiwan, 49 in South
Korea, 3 in Pakistan, yet none in impoverished Cambodia, which offers
the cheapest wages of all. Why not? Well, it used to have two contract
factories in Cambodia, but closed them down after BBC reported that
three girls in one factory were less than 15 years old. Nike didn't
want the heat and pulled out.
So how does a company avoid such blow-ups? Knowledge is power. Until
now, many firms canvassing for new sites or trying to resolve disputes
scrambled for information locally or hired consultants, such as Chicago-based
Baker & McKenzie, which operates in dozens of countries and focuses
on personnel issues. That's expensive. Now there's an alternative
to consider in some circumstances.
Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), the California-based trade
organisation, has developed a nifty international labour compliance
tool, accessed through the internet, with the rather inelegant name
of the Labour Law Database. Ten-year old BSR has developed a solid
reputation for reaching beyond its entrepreneurial counter-culture
roots – founding companies include natural toothpaste manufacturer
Tom's of Maine and Ben & Jerry's – to become a serious player in the
"ethics in business" movement. It began by offering yearly conferences
where jean-clad Ben Cohen lectured awestruck business wannabees, but
upgraded its ambitions under the steady leadership of Robert Dunn,
a former Levi Straus human resources executive. It now has a world
membership of 1400 firms with nearly US$2 trillion in annual revenues.
BSR's raison d'etre is information. That's clear from this well-conceived
database, which provides a central repository on the critical minutiae
of labour standards, vetted by none other than Baker & McKenzie. So
rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars or more on country-by-country
research reports, firms can plunk down $20,000 (non-BSR members pay
an extra $5,000) to access data on 50 countries (with another dozen
in the pipeline).
Is it worth the money? BSR human rights lieutenant Debbie O'Brien
and public relations senior manager David Eichberg took me on a test
drive. There's a short introductory historical summary on each country
that links to a more detailed profile of key issues such as child
labour standards, disciplinary practices, wages and benefits, collective
bargaining rights, and health and safety concerns. Each citation is
cross-referenced with the actual law, although the full legal documents
themselves are not accessible.
"The labour law database is the meat and potatoes," says BSR vice
president Aron Cramer. "The salad is the various tools companies can
use to enhance compliance." Cramer is referring to the most intriguing,
if sometimes frustrating, part of the database, the search engine.
Most simply, it enables users to find keywords within reports or search
across multiple countries. Users can also designate a variety of key
issues and see in a matrix how selected countries compare. That's
pretty neat, but it sounds better than it is. The answers to any of
fifty pre-selected questions – for example, whether a country has
a law for the maximum daily working hours for minors or whether it
follows the International Labour Organization standards on freedom
of association – are presented only in a "yes" and "no" format. That
limits the tool's potential value. But it's a start, and functions
undoubtedly will be added as more companies subscribe and voice their
needs. About twenty or so have signed up so far, though BSR refused
to name any, claiming the privacy concerns of the companies.
Should a corporation or an anti-sweatshop activist group run out and
buy access to this database? It's certainly a great resource. The
price is reasonable for the quality of data. And considering BSR's
good intentions, the tool will certainly evolve. That said, the database
is too limited to replace the kind of detailed consulting that a Baker
& McKenzie could provide when huge liabilities or public relations
brouhahas are on the line. After all, one misstep and BBC or Sweatshop
Watch will be all over you. For those looking for quick answers or
summaries on otherwise obscure labour standards in far flung locales,
or for field consultants who need readily accessible and reliable
information, BSR's Labour Law Database can be an important and even