Concerns about sweatshops and ethical-labor practices have been on the contemporary public radar ever since the early to mid-1990s, when the Kathi Lee Gifford child-labor fiasco and other scandals erupted in the mainstream media.
I’ve been learning as much as I can about these issues recently, and I was excited to discover the existence of auditing organizations such as the Institute for Marketecology, Social Accountability International, and Verité that conduct independent inspections of factories and other types of production facilities to ascertain whether certain codes of conduct are being met. If the facility passes muster, it gets a certified stamp of approval.
What a great idea: a way for consumers to ensure that they’re not subsidizing exploitative business practices, and for responsible corporations to put their money where their mouths are. I’ve even started pestering companies to encourage them to take part in such certification programs.
So imagine my dismay when I came across this Business Week article about Chinese factories that deceive auditors in order to be certified. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but the gist is that nowadays it’s commonplace for factories in China to maintain extra sets of books containing falsified records, and to distribute scripts for workers to recite if they are questioned by inspectors. Not only that, but “a new breed of Chinese consultant has sprung up to assist companies … in evading audits,” the article states.
Pretty depressing, huh? But not entirely surprising.
I’m still digesting the contents of this article, but a few thoughts come to mind. One is that, as much as I sometimes enjoy heaping scorn on big business and calling large companies “evil,” it’s not always as black-and-white as that. After all, big players such as Disney, Nike, and Wal-Mart regularly use auditing organizations, and the large-scale pressure these companies provide has undoubtedly helped check some of the worst abuses. The system is certainly imperfect, but at least these institutions are in place; that’s the first step to meaningful reform.
Another thought is just how much, for me, China represents so many of the complexities, contradictions, and shortcomings of the
global economy. I’ll no doubt be thinking about that tonight when I see Manufactured Landscapes, a new
documentary about Edward Burtynsky, whose awe-inspiring photographs capture
just how massive industry in China is.