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05.09.2009 - 04:03PM

Category: Human Rights

The Human Cost of Greening the Supply Chain

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By Conrad MacKerron The greening of corporate America has a darker side that seems to tolerate dangerous conditions for workers. The emerging solar and renewable energy industries will bring green collar jobs to areas of the U.S. in desperate need of them. But corporations are still paying scant attention to the needs of the people in the global supply chain emerging markets where most manufacturing has shifted. Let's look at the revved up Chinese economy where so many of our goods are now made. China has an occupational safety law. But it's only five years old and honored more in the breach than the observance. And it shows in the toll on workers' lives. China has the highest rate of death from work-related illnesses of any country. According to the International Labor Organization, 380,000 Chinese workers died of occupational illness in 2005 and millions more live with fatal diseases or with limbs missing from job-related accidents. The Toyota Prius has become one of the most visible symbols of environmental consciousness. But a recent report from the National Labor Committee alleged abusive working conditions in Japanese factories assembling the Prius. The report said a third of assembly line workers are poorly paid temps, and that its parts supply chain is "riddled with sweatshop abuse", including the trafficking of tens of thousands of foreign guest workers. Many of them are working 16-hour shifts. And two years ago, Bloomberg Markets linked Toyota, GM and Ford to slave labor conditions in making the pig iron for the steel that ends up in their vehicles. Solar panel installation may produce good jobs here. But producing those panels involves dangerous chemicals. The Washington Post recently reported that a supplier to solar panel maker Suntech Power dumped poisonous silicon tetrachloride, a byproduct of polysilicon manufacture, onto fields in Henan Province in China, rather than recycling it. As major companies from Wal-Mart to Dell to Nike serve up an array of promises to green their supply chains, we need to know who is paying attention to worker health and safety. U.S. firms often negotiate tough deals with suppliers at rates so low that goods can't be produced without resorting to abusive or unsafe working conditions. We're not just talking about discount retailers but also high end brands. It’s unclear if the multinationals are expecting factory owners to pay all the costs of improving safety and environmental conditions in their plants. Improvement is absolutely needed. But is it fair to put the onus on global suppliers in developing countries? Their profits are often already squeezed to the bone by their powerful customers. And what happens to their investment if a big U.S. brand decides to pull its contract and source from another factory the next year because labor is cheaper there? Legislation has helped make the US workplace increasingly safe. In the last 35 years, workplace fatalities here have dropped by 60 percent. Injury rates have gone down by 40 percent. But many investors have basically looked the other way as Western companies pursued a generation of global outsourcing of labor without insisting that our hard-won U.S. rules of workplace safety and fairness be applied to the global supply chain. For the green technology juggernaut to have true social credibility, companies must insist on investing in best environmental practices, safeguarding the well being of workers by enforcing best labor practices, and public disclosure of progress on both fronts. About Conrad MacKerron Conrad MacKerron is the Director of the Corporate Social Responsibility Program at the As You Sow Foundation based in San Francisco, CA.

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