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
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.