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Social accountability in the footwear industry

Why companies cannot ignore the key aspects of social accountability and the responsibility it brings.

by John Hubbard

‘Social accountability’ has been defined as ‘the measure of an organisation’s recognition of social concerns and priorities of internal and external stakeholders (including the local community, employees, and governmental and non-governmental organisations, as well as management and owners). It is reflected in the organisation’s verifiable commitment to such factors as i) a willing compliance with employment, health and hygiene, safety and environmental laws, ii) respect for basic civil and human rights, and iii) the betterment of the community and its surroundings’.

In addition to working for the good of employees and the community, there are also business benefits that can come from a company having a good level of social accountability. Take, for example, breaking news about a factory that has collapsed or burned down – possibly as a result of poor practice – with a number of fatalities among the workforce. Or perhaps a revelation about very dangerous working conditions being discovered in a plant, with employees being forced to work in hazardous or almost slave-like conditions. The negative effect on trade could be very significant if the world’s media announced that a particular brand owner’s products were being made in that factory – apparently with a ‘blind eye’ having been turned to the risks or working environment.

Making a change

The first published social accountability standard against which factories can be certified was published in 1997, and is known as ‘Social Accountability 8000’ (SA8000). This standard was last updated in June 2014, and the latest version – the fourth to be published – includes a more detailed section on definitions than previous editions, in addition to a more comprehensive assessment of the operation of management systems.

In developing this standard, the basic principles for laying down an acceptable approach for facilities to take have been based on principles which come from the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the conventions of the International Labour Organisation. However, when assessing a factory for compliance with this standard, the national labour laws in force in the country must be taken into account. At the very least, the facility must be operating within the laws or the nation state in which it is based, but very often a higher level of compliance will be looked for.

The principles of SA8000

All the versions of SA8000 contain nine basic principles, as follows:

Child labour – Child labour should not be used, and employers should have a clear policy and procedure which should allow them to verify the accurate age of potential employees. Young workers should not be given hazardous work or work at night.

Forced or compulsory labour – Workers should not be compelled to do a particular job – such as through the use of involuntary prison labour or bonded/forced labour. Migrant workers should not have their passport held by their employer, as this may prevent them from leaving.

Health and safety – The work should not damage the health of the workers. Where hazards exist in the workplace, individuals should be trained in safe procedures and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) made available.

Where provided, the accommodation for workers should be clean, safe and meet the basic needs of the workers. A sanitary toilet, drinking water and eating areas should be provided in the working environment.

In addition under this principle, the buildings themselves should be fit for purpose and structurally sound, with sufficient means of evacuation in the event of a fire. Locking external doors for security purposes during working hours without allowing an effective means of escape is not acceptable practice.

Freedom of association and right to collective bargaining – The workers should have the right to form and participate in trade union activity, including collective bargaining. However, there are some countries that do not allow the formation of trade unions. In these circumstances, employers should facilitate parallel means for independent and free association and bargaining.

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Discrimination – In terms of hiring, pay, promotion or termination, there should be no discrimination based on race, caste, national origin, religion, age, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, union membership or political affiliation.

Disciplinary practices – Workers should not be subjected to physical or verbal abuse, and the workplace should be free from the threat of physical abuse. No sexual or other forms of harassment should be permitted.

Senior managers will need to ensure that younger staff members who are promoted are properly trained in how the organisation maintains discipline within the workplace, and the acceptable forms of behaviour towards their subordinates.

Working hours – Any overtime worked must be voluntary and be paid at a premium. While there should be some leeway to allow for short periods of extended working – for instance, to complete an urgent order – workers should not be expected to work in excess of 48 hours per week on a regular basis. Auditors will use either national legislation or industry benchmark standards as their guide when making these judgements (normally whichever system gives the worker the greater protection).

Remuneration – All workers should be paid at or above any legal minimum in force for the region. Overtime should be paid at a premium and all workers should understand for what they are paid.

Previously, some organisations have tried to set a minimum wage for workers that can be applied in these types of ethical audits. However, it has proved difficult to get agreement about what essential items should be included, in addition to the differences in economic climates and the cost of staple goods.

Organisations should not attempt to circumvent the obligations to employees under labour or social security laws by the use of home working, sub-contracting or designation of apprenticeships where there is no real benefit or training for the employee.

Management systems – An organisation which wishes its facilities to become certified against the SA8000 standard will need to put in place a management system which allows two-way communication between staff, so that the aims and principles of the system can be understood by all personnel. It will also demonstrate its commitment to the concept of SA8000 by developing policies and systems to implement the scheme. This will include the formation of a social performance team (SPT), including representatives from the workforce to monitor and put into practice the policies.

Most of these principles are generic and will apply to any facility, no matter what activity is taking place there. However, under the heading of ‘health and safety’, there are often a number of hazards which are specific to the footwear and leather industries. These include chemicals including dusts, solvents and isocyantes, as well as physical hazards such as noise, electrical risks, machinery, knives, manual handling injuries and slips, trips and falls. In order to demonstrate a commitment to health and safety, a senior manager should assume responsibility for health and safety within a facility.

Factory audits

In order to convert policies and practice into recognisable certification, the facility will need to be audited by an external accredited auditing team. This team’s visit may be take place unannounced, to ensure that a realistic picture is obtained of whether the factory is operating according to its written principles with respect to all the key areas of compliance included in the SA8000 standard.

Normally, an initial visit will be carried out which may raise some areas that need attention. At the subsequent visit, these areas will expect to be addressed and some further monitoring may be carried out. It is normally only after the second visit that a decision is taken on whether to award certification to the standard.

The SA8000 standard has been written to be non-industry specific. The principles are claimed to be applicable to a range of industries and sectors, and should not be limited by geographical factors.

How can we help?

Please email for assistance with implementing a social accountability programme in your organisation.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 42 of the February 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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