It's a question that's been asked many times before, since at least the days of the Roman poet Juvenal, who is credited with coining the phrase.
It's as relevant as ever, with the news today that the Pakistani textile factory which exploded in flames last month, killing nearly 300 workers, had been awarded "independent" certification as meeting critical international standards.
As reported by Declan Walsh and Steven Greenhouse in today's New York Times (full article, here),
In August, two inspectors who visited the factory, Ali Enterprises in Karachi, to examine working conditions gave it a prestigious SA8000 certification, meaning it had met international standards in nine areas, including health and safety, child labor and minimum wages. The two inspectors were working on behalf of Social Accountability International, a nonprofit monitoring group based in New York that obtains much of its financing from corporations and relies on 21 affiliates around the world to do most of its inspections.
The reporters call the Karachi fire a "huge embarrassment" to the monitoring system. Social Accountability International had not conducted the inspection itself, contracting the job out to an Italian firm, RINA (Registro Italiano Navale Group). According to a press release on the Social Accountability website,
RINA has voluntarily suspended all SA8000 auditing activity in Pakistan. It is undertaking its own internal investigation and also seeking from local authorities clearer information about the circumstances surrounding this tragedy. In the coming days, SAAS will be rigorously following its own strict rules, and will be examining very closely the validity and effectiveness of RINA's audit and certification process.
That's all well and good, but I'm inclined to agree with Scott Nova, executive director of Worker Rights Consortium, quoted in the Times article as saying, "The whole system is flawed... This demonstrates, more clearly than ever, that corporate-funded monitoring systems like S.A.I. cannot and will not protect workers."
A key problem is that the initial audit -- which is what RINA conducted at the Ali Enterprises factory -- is not a surprise inspection (future inspections would normally not come with advance notice).
According to the Times report, "some surviving workers said that they had been warned of a visit by inspectors and coached to lie about their working conditions, under threat of dismissal."
To blame the disaster entirely on the S.A.I. audit and certification process would of course be grossly unfair.
On Monday, a two-person [Pakistani] government commission of inquiry started investigating the circumstances around the fire. It has already uncovered evidence of gross failings in Pakistan’s regulatory system, which is riddled with corruption, political interference and poor management.
In circumstances like these, to expect a Western, corporate-financed "certificate" to solve the problems of workers' rights and safety would be beyond naive. But the "certificate" is unquestionably itself part of the problem. It relieves the end purchaser (retail seller and consumer alike) of having to ask the hard questions: How was this product made? If all health and safety issues are properly addressed, and workers' wages and benefits adequate, is it really possible to offer this item at so low a price? Who is benefiting, and who is being harmed? If I am complicit (and, by purchasing this item, I am complicit), how can I make things right?
Questions, questions. I've got so many questions. And so few good answers. Only prayers for the families and friends of those 300 workers.