Child labor, compulsory labor and dangerous working conditions exist in many Asian manufacturing companies. American companies that do not have corporate standards may be linked to these practices. It has happened in the sportswear industry and it can happen in the furniture industry.

Most of us are under so much pressure to contain our costs that we would naturally avoid raising an issue that might anger a valued supplier/partner or provide an excuse for a price increase. The hunt for high-quality Asian manufacturing is becoming highly competitive. A suggestion about working conditions will be taken as a sign of American arrogance. Still, we are vulnerable to accusations of indifference, and there are many story-hunting journalists and human rights activists who could give us the kind of media exposure we don't need.

The average worker in a Chinese furniture factory is reportedly paid the equivalent of approximately $40 per month. Factory employees often live in cramped dormitories. I have visited factories that are not heated in the winter and where the stench of crude bathrooms permeates the workplace. All of the factories I have seen are surrounded by high walls and guarded gates that are intended to control theft, but might also be useful to enforce overtime. Are the walls to keep people out or to keep them in? Whose business is it to find out?

No easy solution

The problem cannot be solved by pulling manufacturing back from Asia, even if it were an option. That would be the cruelest thing we could do. I have noticed the dramatic improvements that multinational businesses have made in Southeast Asia during the past two decades. Good business practices are a better antidote for world poverty than all the donations that are funneled through the  United Nations .

No less a respected human rights advocate than  Kofi AnnanSecretary-General of the United Nations , said a few years ago that all of the aid money in the world doesn't have as much power to change living standards as does the combined effect of the multinational business community. He understands that responsible multinational companies create opportunities, encourage education and build infrastructure.

A few large, publicly held companies have a corporate mission statement that covers international human rights issues. Some companies have special independent auditors who screen for problems in this area. But, most of us in the furniture business don't have the time or the budget and staff to write mission statements. Nor do we have the kind of job security that allows us to adjudicate the world's problems and implement changes.

Secretary-General Annan proposed the  U.N. Global Compact  for business in 1999. Through the power of collective action, the Global Compact seeks to advance responsible corporate citizenship. Today, hundreds of companies from all regions of the world are engaged in the Global Compact. It is a voluntary corporate citizenship initiative. It is not a regulatory instrument - it does not police, enforce or measure the behavior or actions of companies.

The U.N. Global Compact is based upon a set of principles that reflect generally accepted attitudes toward human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption.

The  ten principles  are:

Human rights
Businesses should:
1. Support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights within their sphere of influence.
2. Make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses.

Labor standards
Businesses should:
3. Uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.
4. The elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor.
5. The effective abolition of child labor.
6. Eliminate discrimination in respect to employment and occupation.

Environment
Businesses should:
7. Support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges.
8. Undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility.
9. Encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.

Anti-corruption
Businesses should:
10. Businesses should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery. 

 

Our industry can use the U.N. Compact as a starting point, perhaps involve some of our Asian partners and see where it takes us. It would be a good thing for the  American Furniture Manufacturers Association  to facilitate the development of a network within the U.N. Global Compact. Perhaps a publisher might also sponsor a forum on the subject.

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