Back in 2008, the "Ethical Trading Initiative" was featured on the BFTF Radio show on Radio Dawn 107.6FM. Having been kindly transcribed by a volunteer, the interview with ETI spokesperson Julia Hawkins can now be posted on the Interweb for perusal at your convenience.
To start at the beginning, could you give us a little background about the Ethical Trading initiative?
About 10 years we all started to become much more aware that the big brands were sourcing much of their production from factories in lots of far flung places across the world, for example in south east Asia and there were stories of exploitation, of workers being paid poverty wages, of children working and generally of poor conditions. The result was a lot of negative media coverage and consumer campaigns demanding to know what the companies who were sourcing these products were doing about this worker exploitation. The first response of the companies was generally to deny that they had any responsibility for these workers because they weren't directly employing them, then companies started to accept that they did have a responsibility but campaigners and others felt they weren't taking their responsibility seriously - for example they would adopt a code of labour practice, stick it up on their website and not really do much else.
The way ETI came about in 1998 was that a bunch of companies, charities and campaigning organisations got together to say 'Look, we know there are these problems, we know that companies have a responsibility towards workers, so lets work out what companies should be doing to address their conditions given that simply adopting a code of conduct is insufficient'.
So that was why ETI was set up - to work out what companies should be doing; to try and make sure that the workers who were actually making the products, (whether they be food or garments or shoes) were actually treated in accordance with international labour standards. That's what we are basically about.
It's quite unusual to have companies and campaigners around the same table. How did you persuade them all to come aboard?
That a good question! I think one of the major achievements of ETI in the early days, was to get these diverse organisations together around a table and I think it was just as hard to get the campaigners and the labour organisations to engage with the companies as it was to get the companies to talk to the people they are normally at loggerheads with. I think that the companies involved realised that this was not an issue that was going to go away and that there was a value in engaging with the people who were their critics, to actually understand their agendas and to work together with them rather than fighting them. I think that the companies with foresight realised that if they wanted to protect their reputation and protect their workers they needed to engage with the people who understood the issues of the workers and how to improve workers rights because this is an area that most companies don't focus on, they focus on making a profit. So its a way of going to the experts and saying that we are committed to doing this but we need your help in showing us how.
I understand that the ETI has a "base code" which is what the whole system revolves around, could you please give us a little background on that?
The ETI base code is a set of principles, for examples that that workers should not be forced to work overtime, or be harrased, that they should be paid a decent wage and that there should be no child labour. The code also covers basic health and safety so that workers can work in an environment that is safe and hygienic. They key thing that people sometimes forget is that this code is all derived from international labour standards and that it is the International Labour Organisation, which is a UN body, that sets these labour standards through UN conventions. These conventions are very wordy documents, and the base code is a way of putting those conventions into a code that companies can actually implement.
To take one part of your code, that part that talks about workers being paid a living wage (which covers living costs as well as providing some discretionary income) rather than any prevailing minimum wage, I understand that some companies have left the ETI because you they were unable to work towards this criteria. Could you give us some more information on this please?
I guess that you are referring to Levi Strauss, who recently resigned from the ETI over the issue of the living wage. Their position is that they won't incorporate the living wage criteria in their corporate code because they can’t see the workers in their supply chain being paid a living wage in anything like the near future and one of the reasons for this is that they do not believe it will be possible to come up with a suitable definition of what a living wage is, or a formula for working it out. Also it is difficult because if a company goes to a supplier and says that they must pay their workers a living wage then suppliers are going to be very worried that they will be lose out to their competition if they are the only ones who have to increase their wages so it has to be done on a very gradual basis. Our position is that a lot of the base code is very difficult to achieve in some countries and that it is not just the living wage aspect that can be hard to action. For example, one of the clauses is that workers must be able to join a trade union - but in China there are no independent trade unions so it is really difficult for a company who is sourcing from China to put that clause into practice. No company is probably going to achieve all the clauses in the base code in a short period of time but we expect them to aspire towards. We can't have companies picking and choosing which parts of the code they want to include or not.
Can you give some examples of how the ETI code has practically helped some of these workers in the developing world?
A major research study on our members activities was published last year and that study pointed to the fact hat in some cases workers are benefiting from a safer working environment, in some cases workers are being paid more than before. The study also found that there are fewer children working in the upper parts of the supply chain. There is still a long way to go with other parts of the base code, for example the parts that deal with freedom of association. To look at specific examples, one thing that our member companies recently did in Bangladesh was to call on the government to increase the minimum wage because, as you may be aware, the minimum wage in Bangladesh has not been increased since 1994 and is the equivalent of about £7/month which is pretty scary, even taking the low cost of living in Bangladesh into account. The minimum wage has now been increased to about £13/month, which is still not adequate but at least you can point to it as being something concrete that the ETI member companies have helped to achieve. One reason they have done this is that they see a long term future for their business in Bangladesh but still want to make a difference.
It's interesting that you mention Bangladesh as there has been a lot of strife in the garment industry in that country over health and safety, pay and so on - but the disputes have not had any particular impact in the media here in the UK. I wondered if you had any comments about that and any advice as to what we, as consumers, could do to help the workers over there.
As you say, there was minimal if not zero, coverage of the garment protests in May and June last year despite that fact that the ETI sent out press releases saying it was a wake up call for everybody involved in the Bangladesh garment industry to address shockingly low pay and poor working conditions. It was quite staggering that there was no coverage until War on Want released a report in November on conditions in factories that supplied various UK companies that the issue moved up the agenda.
In terms of what can we do as members of the general public, I think that one thing that is really important is that where you have a country like Bangladesh, where 20 million people are dependant on the garment industry, it is really important that companies keep sourcing from that country, despite the fact that there will be further media exposes, because you can't solve these issues overnight but what companies can do is to stay there and continue sourcing and to use their buying power to get leverage with the Bangladeshi government and with the manufacturers to work together to improve conditions. As consumers I think it is very difficult for us to have the kind of information that you need to be able to make informed decisions but I think what is important is to keep on asking questions of the companies - what are conditions like for employees in your supply chain? Are you monitoring their working conditions? Are you working with other companies and with other organisations such as trade unions? Also you can ask them if they are a member of the ETI or a similar organisation.
What is your perception of the response from companies to consumers who make these kinds of demands? For example we can look at the food sector and see how quickly the supermarkets responded to consumer pressure on GM foods. Do you see a similar effect taking place in relation to worker rights and conditions in the garment industry?
I think that issue about GM foods is very straightforward, either something is genetically modified or it isn't. It is the same with Fair-trade, either something is Fair Trade or it isn't. But in the case of ethical trade it is just a bit more complex than that because we are looking at a companies overall behaviour towards all the products in their supply chain. For example as a consumer, I want reassurance that whatever I buy, whether it is a t-shirt or a pair of jeans, is made by workers who were not exploited and unfortunately, at this point in time, we can’t provide any guarantee of that and actually, to us, what is more important is that a company stays sourcing from a supplier who may not be perfect but is willing to improve rather than just cutting and running to source from somewhere else because you are not helping the workers concerned if you do that. The challenge for organisations like us is to try and get that message across to consumers, that the problems of low pay are endemic across many countries and what is important is that we try and get companies to use their buying power to make a difference wherever they can.
We often hear about clothing companies who do the exact opposite of what you just mentioned, who chop and change suppliers all the time and seem to have a policy of preventing long term relationships being developed. What can we do as consumers to move against this?
I think one of the challenges for any company is that, if you are only buying products from a supplier for one season and perhaps only purchasing 2% of that companies’ output then how on earth can you have any leverage over that supplier to improve conditions? It is certainly true that if you have long term relationships with suppliers then you can build trust and confidence and invest in providing management training and advice, but if your relationship is very fleeting it is difficult to do that. This isn't just a problem for budget companies, and companies are certainly starting to look at how they can build longer term relationships with a few key suppliers whilst still getting the right products in store at the right time.
What do you think you have achieved over the last few years and what are you focussing on for the future?
The first few years of the ETI were really a process of learning what kinds of tools and methodologies were most appropriate for the kind of audits we were likely to be undertaking. In terms of our achievements, the first thing to mention is that getting agreement on the ETI base code was no mean feat! But also getting consensus about the best approach to auditing and developing tools for companies to use. Since 2004 we have started to shift focus towards giving companies practical tools to help them do their jobs, increasing our membership and also trying to ensure that the member companies are taking on board the learning that we have developed as part of ETI and are implementing it throughout their supply chains. We are also trying to increase our presence in major sourcing countries, for example we now have a full time representative in China to help our member companies to do the work they are performing on the ground there perform their auditing and we are about to recruit a full time representative in India as well. We are also much better able now to use our collective weight to lobby governments and broker solutions. In fact we have helped to resolve some really quite major disputes in our member companies sourcing factories over the last twelve months and I think that is a rally good, really practical achievement.
Now, I know the ETI is not just about the garment industry, so could you give a little flavour of the other kinds of products that it gets involved in?
The main areas are foods, toys, the garment industry, flowers, shoes, electrical goods and so on. The focus is on industries where there are a large number of workers who are being paid very low wages. These are industries where the processes involved are relatively simple - wages and conditions tend to be better in the more complex industries such as car manufacture. In terms of asking questions, a good rule of thumb is that the companies that are honest about the problems they are facing are the ones that are most trustworthy. If a company says that their supply chain is 100% perfect - that's just not true. Take for example the case of Nike who were vilified in the press and by campaigners. Nike were one of the first companies to admit that their supply chain is not perfect. And they have put the details of all their suppliers on their website so that you can check them out for yourself if you want to - a really good step.
Lastly, every guest on the show gets asked the “Special Question” : What do you think is the best thing about living in the UK?
I think I always say to my friends who are complaining about things in this country such as commuting or the weather that we are just so lucky to live in this country, we have water, most of us have enough food, enough clothes, we are not in fear for our lives, we can vote governments in and kick them out and that is actually quite rare in the world and I feel incredibly lucky to be born in this country and to be living in this country. I've lived in countries where you don't necessarily have the same freedoms and I think that it is just something to feel really happy about.