Archive for the ‘safety’ Category
It’s easy to villainize a company like Walmart for being unwilling to sign an agreement seeking to improve safety for workers in Bangladesh. What’s harder is to assess the company’s actual motives, and its obligations.
Headlines recently blared that Walmart has refused to sign the new “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, despite the fact that 24 other companies (including Europe’s two largest clothing retailers, as well as American brand Tommy Hilfiger and Canada’s Loblaw) had signed.
Other news sources avoided the Walmart-centric hysteria and pointed out that lots of retail chains have in fact opted not to sign. For its part, Walmart says says it plans to undertake its own plan to verify and improve conditions at its suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh. Supporters of the accord, however, are skeptical about the effectiveness of company’s proposed independent effort.
From the point of view of ethical responsibilities, could a well-intentioned company conscientiously decline to sign the pact?
It’s worth looking at a few reasons why a company might choose not to sign a pact designed to improve, and even save, lives. Walmart presumably believes that its own effort will be sufficient, and perhaps even superior. The company’s famous efficiency and notorious influence over suppliers lend some credibility to such a notion. Other companies have worried that signing the pact would bring new legal liabilities, which of course is precisely the point of a legally-binding document. (Gap, for instance, has said that it will sign only if language regarding arbitration is removed, a stance that effectively amounts to refusal.)
There may also be worries about governance: the accord provides for the appointment of a steering committee “with equal representation chosen by the trade union signatories and company signatories” — equal, but to be chaired by a seventh member selected by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Perhaps some worry that the ILO-appointed chair won’t really be neutral, giving unions an effective majority.
Other companies — including ones like Walmart, which is famous for its efficiency — may worry about the extra administrative burden implied by weaving this accord’s regulatory apparatus into its own systems of supply-chain oversight.
Another worry might be the fact that the accord applies only to Bangladesh, and makes that country the subject of a separate set of procedures. The accord also commits signatories to expenditures specifically on safety in Bangladesh, when from a particular company’s point of view Bangladesh might not be a priority. In the wake of the April factory collapse, it’s worth pointing out that there are other places in the world with unsafe factories and crummy working conditions. It’s not unreasonable for at least some companies to focus their efforts on places where conditions are equally bad, and that host even more of their suppliers.
None of this goes any distance toward excusing inaction. None of it condones apathy. The point is simply that while failure to sign a particular accord makes great headlines, we need to look carefully at reasons, as well as at a company’s full range of obligations, if we are to make sense of such a decision.
In Bangladesh, on Wednesday, a building collapsed, killing at least 260 people. The factories in the building made garments for a number of global retailers, including Canada’s Joe Fresh. This weekend, I’m very likely going shopping at Joe Fresh, and with a clear conscience. People threatening to boycott the brand are woefully misguided. Their sorrow is justified; a change in their shopping habits is not.
The events in Bangladesh represent an utterly horrible loss of life. Anyone unmoved by such a tragedy is less than human. But to see this as an indictment of Joe Fresh, or of Western consumers, is a serious mistake.
So, just what happened in Bangladesh? The 8-story building that collapsed on Wednesday housed a number of garment factories, a shopping mall, and a bank. The people who died did so partly due to the fact that someone in Bangladesh made a very, very bad decision: police had ordered the building evacuated the day before, due to structural defects, but factory managers ignored that order. That was an immoral decision, and perhaps a criminal one. I hope those managers are brought to justice.
Now, yes, it’s true that the purchasing decisions of Canadian consumers are also part of the causal chain that led to those deaths. But causal connection is not the same as moral responsibility. Every event, tragic or not, is the culmination of countless contributing factors. To be part of a causal chain is not the same as causing something to happen. There is no reasonable sense in which Canadians shopping at Joe Fresh are responsible for Wednesday’s deaths.
In fact, Canadians shopping at Joe Fresh are doing a lot of good. Places like Bangladesh — people in places like Bangladesh — absolutely rely on the jobs provided by the international garment industry. That is, there are people in developing countries who only have jobs because people in the industrialized West buy clothes from retailers who subcontract to manufacturers in places like Bangladesh.
None the less, some people are expressing outrage at the fact that Bangladeshis are dying so that Canadians can have cheap clothes. Is this situation really so unique? In North America, the deadliest trade is commercial fishing, followed closely by mining and logging. Does anyone imagine that no corners are cut in those industries, no safety standards violated? So Canadians, too, are dying…dying so that Canadians can have cheap crab and haddock, cheap oil and aluminum, and cheap wood and paper products. Actually, a lot of that stuff goes for export, so Canadians are dying so that people from other countries can have those things cheaply. Such is globalization: millions of people world-wide take risks that they think are worth taking, in order to make a living, and they can do so because people on the other side of the world are willing to pay them to.
But of course, companies like Joe Fresh still have some obligation to make sure that their subcontractors are treating employees decently. And the company certainly acknowledges as much. According to a statement on the brand’s Facebook page, their parent company, Loblaws Inc. has…
“robust vendor standards designed to ensure that products are manufactured in a socially responsible way, ensuring a safe and sustainable work environment. We engage international auditing firms to inspect against these standards. We will not work with vendors who do not meet our standards.”
In other words, the company makes exactly the promise it ought to make. Of course, there’s only so much it can do to guarantee that its subcontractors won’t break the law, on the other side of the planet. But then again, there’s notoriously little any company can do to guarantee that its subcontractors won’t break the law, whether it operates on the other side of the planet or just down the street.
Has Joe Fresh done enough in this regard? It’s impossible to say from the outside. But what’s crucial, here, is to see that even an event as tragic as Wednesday’s building collapse in Bangladesh does nothing to impugn the company’s integrity. Should we ask questions? Of course we should. But these events shouldn’t make us jump to conclusions. Nor will they deter me, at least, from going shopping this weekend.
As Hurricane Sandy bears down on Atlantic City, New York, and (eventually) parts of eastern Canada, thousands of businesses large and small are faced with dilemmas related to doing business before, during, and after a potential state of disaster. Certainly some businesses won’t have a choice, as flooding either wipes them out or makes access impossible. The NYSE and Nasdaq have both made the unusual move of staying closed for the day today (Monday).
But others will have hard choices to make, and no easy formula for making such choices is at hand.
Choice #1 pertains to the basic issue of staying open. Here, business owners need to balance the safety and security of their employees and buildings, on one hand, with the needs of their customers on the other. The weight given to the needs of customers must of course depend on just what you’re selling. If you sell water and flashlight batteries, a sense of social obligation ought to keep you open ‘as long as possible.’
The second choice has to do with the closely related question of whether businesses should require employees to work before, during, and after a natural disaster. Sometimes being at work will pose risks to health and safety, and sometimes the risk lies in getting to work. The transit closures that go with severe weather are a factor here, too. Lack of access to public transit can make it difficult, and sometimes dangerous, for employees to get to work. But then again, in some cases employees — especially ones earning an hourly wage — will prefer to work, in which case telling them to go home may be overly paternalistic.
The third question is about prices. In a reasonably free market, prices tend to go up when goods are scarce and when demand is high. And natural disasters have a way of both limiting supply and raising demand. As supply chains get cut off, it may be reasonable for businesses to raise prices somewhat in order to cover additional costs. But stores need to be careful to stay on the right side of the law — most jurisdictions have anti-price gouging laws that put limits on just how much you can raise prices in the wake of disaster.
All three choices involve difficult decisions about how to balance the competing interests of various groups. But in terms of fundamental motivation, it’s also worth pointing out that staying in business as long as possible can be a great way to build goodwill. A business that is there for its community in times of crisis is likely to reap rewards for a long time to come.
The business I happen to work for — Ryerson University — is an unusual kind of business when it comes to questions like these. I asked our VP Administration & Finance, Julia Hanigsberg, about the criteria Ryerson uses to decide whether and when to close.
“The safety of our community is the primary consideration on whether to close the university or cancel classes during extreme weather conditions or other emergency situations,” Hanigsberg told me. “Our Integrated Threat and Risk Assessment team monitors the situation by scanning publicly available sources and consulting with expertise available in the broader public sector about road conditions, availability of public transit, information from Emergency Services etc.”
One particularly interesting point that Hanigsberg made had to do with the fact that, really, the university never fully shuts down. Hanigsberg says: “Unlike most businesses, even when we ‘close’ the university is operational 24/7 with students in residence, research labs operational etc.”
The same is true for hospitals, of course, as well as other public services like shelters. But the same is true for businesses such as hotels and kennels and airports. Anything charged with the 24/7 sheltering and feeding of humans or animals — is unlikely to shut down entirely. The same obviously goes for essential services, such as police, fire, and ambulance. They’re not businesses in the traditional sense, but they face the same dilemmas, albeit with a much stronger public service impetus pushing them to keep the wheels turning.
The inability to shut down entirely brings special obligations, of course. For starters, it puts a premium on planning for disasters. Businesses that can’t shut down need to have plans in place, and need to train employees both in safeguarding their own health and safety, and in looking out for the customers who may be entrusted to their care in the most trying, and ethically challenging, of circumstances.
It was reported recently that an engineer for TransCanada, Evan Vokes, has now gone public with claims that the pipeline company has been lax in the standards it applies to having its pipelines inspected.
Whistleblowing is among the most complex ethical issues in the world of business. Whistleblowers are people who demonstrate that there is — there must be — a limit to the loyalty of even a dedicated employee. Whistleblowers go outside the boundaries of their organization to report actual or immanent wrongdoing. They often prevent grievous harm, but in doing so they inevitably impugn the character of their organizations, and sometimes of their co-workers. And of course, there’s always the worry that the self-appointed whistleblower is actually just a malcontent bent on revenge. But such cases aside, whistleblowers perform an essential public service.
A few points are worth making about the TransCanada case in particular.
The first is that, at least as the story is told by the CBC, Vokes is the perfect whistleblower. He’s got the relevant expertise (he’s both a welder and an engineer) and he’s got a reputation for honesty and integrity. Further, Vokes carried out the whistleblowing properly: he proceeded in perfect ethics-textbook fashion by first making his concerns known to his superiors, and then escalating up chain of command. Only when it became clear that internal channels weren’t working did he go outside of the company to bring his concerns to the relevant regulatory agency.
Second, the fact that Vokes felt the need to blow the whistle suggests a failure of leadership within the company. According the the CBC’s report, Vokes made his concerns clear all the way up the corporate hierarchy, and everyone “right up to the chief executive officer refused to act on his complaints.” A
“It’s fine” — just like NASA’s space shuttle Challenger
The latest update to this story, of course, is that TransCanada has now temporarily shut down its Keystone pipeline, citing safety concerns.