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Educating Workers
A response to "Realizing Labor Standards."

Heather White

Verité, of which I am executive director, is a nonprofit organization that has in the last five years conducted human rights inspections of over six hundred factories in fifty countries. Our programs in factories, which include health and safety improvements and training seminars on women's issues, have been delivered throughout Central America and Asia. Since March 2000, we have been conducting an in-factory worker training program in China that includes basic literacy and math skills, as well as training in labor rights and a variety of issues faced by young women who have migrated to rural areas to work in an urban manufacturing environment. The purpose of these programs is to address what we have identified as an urgent need for workers: to understand their legal rights and protections under local law. We regularly find that workers do not know the basis for their wages. The majority work according to a piece-rate system that conveniently avoids transparency and obscures all information regarding wage calculations with factory management. Contract workers working in foreign countries are especially vulnerable to wage exploitation and overtime abuses.

In addition to the initiatives proposed by Fung, O'Rourke, and Sabel, I would like to propose a global worker education initiative in all developing countries that produce for Western markets. Until workers are in a position to advocate for themselves, possessing complete knowledge of their legal rights and entitlements, they will be overly dependent on outside auditors to initiate improvements in the workplace, which may or may not happen.

The health and safety issue is somewhat easier to address. In our audits, Verité has found health and safety problems to be among the most common, and in most cases they are relatively straightforward and inexpensive to remedy. Health and safety violations often occur due to management's lack of awareness of local regulations or of best-practice methods that minimize hazards.

Many factories that we have audited have expressed strong interest in upgrading their health and safety programs, but they readily admit they lack the knowledge to do so. We have seen that United States and European companies can have significant impact on working conditions by requiring their business partners to change as a precondition to future orders, and then following through to see whether improvements have been made. •

Heather White is executive director of Verité, a non-profit human-rights monitor based in Amherst, Mass.

Read all eight responses to "Realizing Labor Standards," by Archon Fung, Dara O'Rourke, and Charles Sabel.

Originally published in the February/March 2001 issue of Boston Review

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