by Eleanor Brown
Sylvie Babarik wants to be sure that her T-shirt was made by
an employee who was never physically assaulted at the sewing machine by
an angry boss.
Were your jeans made quickly because someone wasnt allowed
to take a bathroom break? I would say that I dont know [about my
own wardrobe], the Concordia University student said ruefully.
She was addressing a group of academics who assembled this month to discuss
case studies on business ethics around the world at the third annual meeting
on Global Responsibilities and the Practices of International Businesses
in Developing Areas, convened by Concordia professor Frederick Bird, and
held Oct. 17 to 19.
Although actual assault is not common, it can still happen in the dozens
of factories located in developing countries around the world, where little
effort is put into employee comfort. But overtime is often a job requirement,
pay cheques may not reflect the hours worked, and there may be no work
breaks. Employees may be yelled at by their supervisors, and all the doors,
including the emergency exits, may be locked.
Even the multinational company that sews its brand name onto the clothing
may not know whats happening in its factories, located thousands
of miles away from the head office. Its expensive to hire private
accountants and monitors to find out, and many executives would rather
Of course, some are concerned by bad publicity, and others do worry about
business ethics. Babarik is working on a report for a church group that
visits factories in Guatemala for concerned foreign investors, on the
In this case, the brand name pressured one of its main suppliers
to allow people to come in, Babarik said. They are allowed
to speak to the workers on their lunch breaks, they observe, they have
access to the books. They write up what theyve seen, and send it
to the brand name. If there are violations of local law or international
treaties, they hope the brand name will then intervene.
Guatemala is a popular locale for international investors in the textile
trade, yet it has only nine labour inspectors for the whole country, meaning
many of the sub-contracted factory operators rarely see one.
Babarik presented the draft of her paper as a bit of an accident. She
went to Guatemala on her own just over a year ago, and helped with writing
up the project when she met up with some Canadian Presbyterians.
In September, she started an MA in Religious Studies at Concordia, and
met Dr. Bird, an ethicist in the department and one of the principal researchers
on this project, which will culminate in a series of books on business
ethics around the world. The project itself is mainly funded by a small
SSHRC grant, with each academic involved there are more than two
dozen picking a country and a handful of businesses within it.
Bird wants to study what makes for good corporate responsibility, and
how and why it should be done. Is community development the responsibility
of a business that sells its products elsewhere?
Businesses in the developing world must abide by some standards
developed by Europeans, Bird said, but are these the terms
that those countries choose? Or are they getting in the way, causing conflict
Cultural differences are real, but Bird also doesnt want people
to shrug and adopt a cultural relativism to the detriment of others. What
minimal standards must exist in order to arrive at common goals?
Bird has lots of questions, and there may be no hard and fast answers.
Were not here to praise or to blame, but to learn.
He does admit to an agenda, however: We are interested in reducing
poverty. As a result, the case studies look at whether companies
build social infrastructure, and analyze business strategy. Many corporations
are obsessed with making short-term cash when their long-term survival
and profits might benefit from different decisions. Asset development
can be seen to include employees and whole neighbourhoods.
Birds group is always inviting more academics to keep them up to
date on the hundreds of countries around the world that fall under their
Brock University political science professor Hevina Dashwood is one-third
of the way into her own three-year project on corporate responsibility
in Canadas mining sector, looking at what factors have motivated
firms to adopt policies. Globalization has brought on a new set of rules,
from local to country-wide, and a dizzying array of international treaties.
Theyre not cohesively put together, she said. Companies
are also increasingly making their own rules about ethical behaviour.
Were seeing a shifting locus of authority between the private
and the public. The whole privatization of standardization shows a shift
of the knowledge base.
Should governments be devolving their power? Université de Montréal
business school student Rabia Naguib presented the economic vision of
Malaysias prime-minister-for-life, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. He has
been in office since 1981, and has significantly transformed his country,
cutting poverty, focussing on huge public works projects and creating
a smart partnership program that mixes public and private,
and the local with the international.
On the other hand, the structure of smart partnership allows
for corruption and the occasional boondoggle, and human rights abuses
abound. Still, the prime minister is popular for taking on the rest of
the world. He is an acerbic badboy, who will say aloud what other
people are thinking, Naguib said.
The prime minister says the international community tries to beggar
thy neighbour. . . . We have developed ourselves by doing the opposite
of what the [financial] wizards told us we should do. But you dont
like us to have big ideas its not proper.
Others have been in on the project a bit longer, like McGill University
doctoral student Farzad R. Khan. He presented a look at the international
panic over child-labour used in making soccer balls in Pakistan.
The charges of abusive child labour practices leveled against them
in a 1996 child labour campaign were simply unfounded. Children were simply
helping the family wax threads or perforate holes for panels, he
concluded. Working part-time at their own family pace is a safe,
clean, non-hazardous process.
To solve the public relations crisis caused by the rumours of child abuse,
the industry was completely upended. Factories were built, taking parents
out of their homes and causing social upheaval. As a result, many workers
lost the piecework and part-time jobs that had sustained their families.
Other researchers at the workshop reported on case studies of business
practices in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, South Korea, China,
Vietnam, Northern Quebec, Fiji and Costa Rica.