Rising public concern about inhumane working conditions in developing countries led to the creation in 1997 of the Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency. Its purpose was to draw up a universal code of practice for labour conditions in manufacturing industry, so that consumers in developed countries could be confident that the goods they were buying - in particular clothes, toys, cosmetics and electronic goods - had been produced in accordance with recognized set of standards.
At that time, many businesses had already begun to recognize the commercial advantages of adopting an ethical dimension in their employment practices, and were operating their own codes of conduct. However, there was no consensus on what exactly constituted a socially responsible policy. As a result, the myriad codes were inconsistent and poorly audited.
In summer 2000, CEPAA became known as Social Accountability International (SAI), a new entity whose remit was to develop voluntary standards governing social responsibility, and to certify companies that agreed to meet them. The first such standard is SA8000, which governs employees' working conditions.
The terms of SA8000 were drafted by an advisory board comprising 25 experts from a wide range of backgrounds, including businesses, trade unions and non-governmental organizations. Now that the code has been finalized, SAI is overseeing the certification of companies that have expressed a desire to become SA8000-compliant.
Certification is carried out by a handful of independent auditors, who are accredited by SAI. Written guidance and training courses have been created to help auditors undertake this function.
The SA8000 standard
The SA8000 standard for socially responsible employment practices first appeared in 1998 after nearly a year of drafting by the advisory board. It was modelled on the well-established ISO9000 quality standard. However, unlike ISO9000, it prescribes specific performance standards.
The SA8000 program offers two separate routes for companies that want to demonstrate their commitment to social responsibility.
The first, membership, is designed for businesses that are involved in retailing. It involves making a commitment to do business only with socially responsible suppliers.
SA8000 members are offered a self-assessment package and other tools to help them implement a policy on social responsibility. They are expected to notify their suppliers of their intention to adopt SA8000 standards, and to set a timetable for phasing out dealings with companies that fail to meet those criteria.
Member companies are also required to produce an annual report detailing their SA8000 objectives, and outlining progress that has been made towards those goals. These reports are verified by SAI.
The second route, certification, is intended for manufacturers and suppliers themselves. The process is a rigorous one which begins with the company contacting an accredited auditor. Having demonstrated compliance with existing regulations and assessed how current practice compares with the provisions of SA8000, the company is given the status of 'SA8000 applicant'.
The business then puts in place an SA8000 program, which is scrutinized by a 'pre-assessment audit'. Any improvements that are recommended can be put into practice before the formal audit takes place.
Following the formal assessment, the company is again given the opportunity to put right any shortcomings, before being checked again. If at the end of this process the auditors are satisfied that the company is fully compliant, they will issue an SA8000 certificate, valid for three years.
The SA8000 code of practice is broken down into nine key areas:
It has been estimated that upwards of 100 million children worldwide are in full-time labour. The vast majority are in Asia, Africa and South America. Under the terms of SA8000, companies must not support child labour.
Furthermore, they must also provide their staff with a safe and healthy working environment, and respect the right of employees to enroll in trade unions.
Discrimination, whether on the grounds of race, nationality, sex, disability or political affiliation, is not allowed, and neither are corporal punishment and verbal abuse.
Companies applying for SA8000 certification must ensure that none of their staff, or those working for their suppliers, is required to work more than 48 hours a week, or more than six days a week. Moreover, wages must be at least equal to legal or 'industry minimum' levels, and must be sufficient to leave the employee with some discretionary income.
The final category covered by SA8000, governing management systems, sets out the structures and procedures that companies must adopt in order to ensure that compliance with the standard is continuously reviewed.
As well as setting new standards governing workers' rights, SA8000 is designed to embrace existing international agreements, including International Labour Organization conventions, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. These instruments are explicitly set out in the terms of SA8000.
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