Laser guns were the stuff of kids’ dreams. Brightly coloured beams of light going zip zap between enemies, usually causing them to explode in a cascade of sparks or a frazzle of hair.
This science fiction is nowhere near the truth of the matter, where lasers are much more sedate and used primary for scientific research or industrial use. As a narrowly focussed beam of light, they can cut through just about anything depending up on the power put behind them.
Social Accountability International’s SA8000 is the laser of sustainability reporting.
It is a tightly focussed standard, concentrating solely upon people’s working conditions. Crucially it encompasses both employees and suppliers, essentially forcing a company to review its entire supply chain.
SA8000 is based upon a variety of sources, including UN declarations and International Labour Organisation conventions. It is currently under review with an update due to be published later in 2008.
Requirements are split across eight recognised human rights components, including child labour, collective bargaining, working hours and remuneration. A further section details the management processes a company is expected to have in place.
Unlike many other standards, there is no option to self-certify under SA8000. Rather, each and every company facility has to be visited by a qualified assessor.
Brief and to the point
As with all good standards, SA8000 benefits hugely from keeping the actual criteria straightforward and simple. This means the standard itself is contained to four sides of A4, including definitions the standard relies upon.
However this does not impinge upon the effectiveness of the standard especially with the strengthening which is currently taking place.
For instance, under the Forced Labour section a company is currently prohibited from engaging in forced labour or requiring employees to lodge deposits or identity papers with the company.
The draft of the strengthened standard includes bonded and trafficked persons and also prohibits the retention of any salary or other property of its employees.
A similar pattern emerges with the management processes. Here many of the tweaks in the new draft appear to be based upon loopholes management have discovered in the original.
For example, in the section on Addressing Concerns And Taking Corrective Action the original draft required companies not to discriminate against employees who raise concerns about the business’ performance against the standard.
It is easy to imagine how some companies may have forced employees with concerns to raise them in public, thus ensuring that they effectively self-censored for fear of gaining a reputation as being awkward.
The latest draft of the standard therefore includes a further requirement in this section that a company provide a confidential process for employees to raise their concerns through.
The need for expansion
Because of its focus upon working conditions SA8000 tends to concentrate upon businesses, industrial and manufacturing environments.
While this is undoubtedly the greatest area in need of improvement for western supply chains, it would do the standard no harm to widen its appeal to include other bodies such as government bodies and NGOs.
Government bodies in particular are a large driver of a significant proportion of commercial activities in most countries. If they were to start to adopt SA8000 it would go a long way to improving labour standards across the world without the need for regulation.
However for this to happen, SA8000 needs to take the public sector’s concerns into account in the first place.