Archive for the ‘human rights’ Category

SodaStream in the West Bank

Controversy continues to bubble over the SodaStream countertop carbonator. The popular home gadget — used to turn regular tap water into a variety of fizzy drinks — has generated controversy due to the fact that SodaStream operates a manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank. For some, raging against the SodaStream is just part of a larger effort to boycott Israeli products, or at least products made in the occupied territories. They point out that Israeli settlement in those territories is illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice.

None the less, it is probably tempting for many to shrug their shoulders at the whole thing. Many North Americans without a partisan tie to the issue may just think of the conflict between Israel and Palestine as one of “those” conflicts, “over there.” Consider: for the average middle-aged North American, it’s a conflict that has been making headlines for literally our entire lives, with both sides apparently taking turns at acting badly and no end in sight. It’s understandable if a few of us consider it a wash, declining to take sides and staring blankly when the topic comes up.

SodaStream’s spokesperson, incidentally, is none other than Scarlett Johansson. The Jewish Daily Forward referred to Johansson’s affiliation with the company as an unhelpful ‘normalizing’ of the Israeli occupation. After all, what could be more normal and peaceful than opening up a factory and offering people employment? There’s a sense in which that might be an understatement: building factories on occupied land — any occupied land — could easily be thought of as an act of war.

On the other hand, as defenders of the company point out, the factory is giving jobs to a few hundred Palestinians, and giving someone a job is hardly an act of aggression. For that matter, in most parts of the world it is acknowledged that commerce is generally conducive to peace. The more prosperous people are — roughly, the more they have to lose — the less likely they are to engage in warfare.

Does it matter, either way? From the point of view of outcomes, it’s hard to see much value in avoiding buying a SodaStream, even given a principled objection to operating factories in occupied territory. Your purchase (roughly $80 – $120) isn’t buying guns, or barbed wire. And the fraction-of-a-fraction of the purchase price that ends up contributing to the company’s bottom line isn’t going to either keep SodaStream in business or put them out of it. Your purchase, in other words, is trivial.

But isn’t refusal to buy a SodaStream another example of the growing, and generally positive, trend toward conscious consumerism? It arguably is, but in fact the benefits of conscious consumerism are not as obvious as many would have you think. As my friend, Professor Alexei Marcoux, argues, refusing to do business with someone because you disagree with their values is a dangerous road to go down. Given the huge number of moral disagreements in the world, we should think twice about becoming the sort of people who let such disagreements get in the way of engaging in mutually beneficial trade. That’s not a knock-down argument against any and all principled refusals to do business, but it’s a point worth making.

Now, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is no garden-variety disagreement. But that might just be the point. It’s not at all clear that we should want a controversy so bitter, and so protracted, to occupy our purchasing decisions.

Top Retailers Sign New Bangladesh Safety Initiative

Workers in Bangladesh will be the beneficiaries of yet another massive effort to improve their lot. Will it work? And will it mean anything for workers in countries other than Bangladesh? It’s a welcome move, but it also raises questions.

According to a press release, an alliance of leading North American retailers has committed to a new plan, The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, intended to “dramatically improving factory safety conditions in Bangladesh.” The coalition includes Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, Gap, Hudson’s Bay Company, and a dozen other major retailers. That means, according to the press release, that the Initiative covers the “overwhelming majority of North American apparel imports.”

This new Initiative should not be confused with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a labour-led agreement that was announced in May, less than a month after the collapsed the collapse of Bangladesh’s 8-story Rana Plaza collapse, a tragedy that eventually claimed 1,129 victims. Signatories to that Accord included Europe’s two biggest clothing retailers, as well as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, and Canada’s Loblaw, but there were notable abstentions. Walmart, for instance, was criticized for declining to sign on.

The new Initiative “sets aggressive timelines and accountability for inspections, training and worker empowerment.” Of particular note: “Within one year, 100 percent of all factories that conduct work with an alliance member will be inspected,” and members of the alliance have committed to refusing to do business with any factory deemed unsafe. And, in a worthy commitment to transparency, the alliance will make semi-annual progress reports public.

There is, of course, plenty of room for skepticism. Some will see this new Initiative as a PR move, albeit a rather expensive one. Members of the alliance have already committed $42 million, though of course that number has to be put into context by comparing it to the vast profit the alliance members derive from doing business in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi garment industry is a $19 billion-a-year industry. (Quick math: that means the size of the Alliance budget amounts to roughtly 0.2% of the size of the industry. That’s not necessarily the most relevant comparison, but it gives you a sense of scale.)

Another source of skepticism, for some, is that this is an entirely business-driven initiative, unlike the May Accord, which was driven by labour and which will be guided by a Board that includes representatives of both corporate and labour interests. The Board of the new Initiative is perhaps less clearly unbiased: the 9-member board will consist of “four retailers, four stakeholders who provide specific expertise, and an independent board chair.” Interestingly, however, the Initiative does include specific provisions not just to look after workers, in the paternalistic sense, but to empower them: it calls for members to support the election of Worker Participation Committees at all factories, along with the provision of anonymous worker hotlines to be administered by a third party.

I continue to wonder and worry that both the new The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative and May’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh represent a kind of Bangladeshi exceptionalism. Why are major retailers joining together in now two big agreements to improve conditions in Bangladesh, but in Bangladesh alone? Admittedly, Bangladesh is important — as far as the garment industry goes, it is second only to China among countries exporting Western brands. But still: it worries me that a factory collapse that could have happened in an number of developing nations has apparently drawn attention only to the fate of garment workers in one, admittedly needy, nation.

Rejecting the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Image by rijans (Creative Commons)

Image by rijans (Creative Commons)


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.

Samsung, Chinese Workers, and Labour Rights

Samsung and Apple recently shared the spotlight as the parties to a billion dollar intellectual property lawsuit. Now, Samsung has replaced Apple as the tech company in a different spotlight — the spotlight, that is, consisting of accusations of mistreating Chinese workers. A report by the New York-based NGO China Labor Watch says that Chinese factories making devices and components for Samsung are guilty of a range of abuses. Employees working more than 100 hours of overtime in a month. Children under 16 working in factories. Failure to provide safety clothing where appropriate. And on and on.

A few key points are worth noting.

First, a note about overtime. It’s worth pointing out that China Labor Watch criticizes overtime — voluntary overtime — as if overtime were a bad thing. But at the Foxconn factories supplying Apple, at least, the biggest complaint of workers was that they wanted more overtime. If anything similar is the case at the Samsung factories, this implies that stricter limits on overtime would indeed be a bad thing, at least from the workers’ point of view.

Of course, wanting more overtime doesn’t prove that things are great at the factories; it just proves that workers want more money than they make during a regular workday. After all, if you pay people poorly enough, everyone will literally beg you for more overtime.

But then, it’s also worth remembering that “overtime” is a social construct. The amount of hours someone should work in a week is a matter of convention, and in North America and Europe we established the conventional 35 or 40 hour work week once we could afford to do so. Not everyone is yet so lucky.

Second, it is a mistake to lump all the accusations in together, as if they were all of a kind. They aren’t. Some of the complaints have to do with things that are susceptible to tradeoffs. Long hours, for example, may be acceptable if workers believe the loss of leisure time is justified by the extra income. It’s arguably a matter of rational calculations for each worker.

Other complaints, in comparison, have to do with rights, and rights are traditionally regarded as not being readily subjected to such calculations. We don’t allow voters in a democracy to literally sell their votes, for example. We put such a high value on the right to democratic participation that we forbid voters from making tradeoffs of this kind, from weighing how much they value their ability to vote against how much they value some quantity of money. Now, back to Samsung. One of the issues raised by China Labor Watch is that workers in the factories lacked a mechanism by which to lodge complaints. The existence of such a mechanism in the workplace might arguably be said to be a right. Such being the case, Samsung cannot simply argue that its workers are making a rational tradeoff here. Rights, as the saying goes, are trumps.

Finally, a note about accountability. As law professor Stan Abrams points out, one of the key factors differentiating the Apple and Samsung cases is that Samsung owns or controls many of the factories in question. Apple, on the other hand, was (and is) criticized for conditions at factories owned by its subcontractor. But since it didn’t run those factories it could plausibly deny knowledge and perhaps responsibility. Samsung, on the other hand, has no such refuge. When you own or control a factory, you can’t plausible, ethically, deny that you know how workers are being treated.

That’s not to say that the Apple and Samsung cases are categorically different. In both cases, the companies in question need to take a hard look at how their products are being made. But consumers and investors need to take a hard look, too. And that means not just casting a spotlight, but doing the hard mental work of thinking through some complicated questions of right and wrong.

A High-Tech Replacement for Sweatshop Labour! Um…yay?

When new technology puts sweatshop labourers out of work, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.

Here’s the story, from Fast Company: Nike’s New Thermo-Molded Sneakers Are Like Sculptures For Your Feet

The classic Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90 Nike shoes get the Vac Tech treatment–a thermo-molding technique that produces one-piece, stitch-free sneakers.

As a centerpiece for the holiday season, Nike Sportswear has released three of its most venerable brands–the Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90–constructed using a thermo-molding technique, a kind of vacuum compression method that allows the shoe to be held together without any noticeable seams or stitching. The Nike Dunk VT, above, basically recreates the familiar silhouette of the original design as sculpture around your feet.

Now presumably — though details are sketchy — the lack of stitching will mean these babies will be cranked out by machines, rather than assembled by hand by underpaid people in underdeveloped nations. Critics who think there’s no such thing as a good sweatshop should rejoice. But will sweatshop workers be so happy?

I hasten to add that the word “sweatshop” in its most pejorative sense doesn’t really apply to Nike. Nike, once villainized for having its shoes made by poorly-paid workers working under appalling conditions, is now widely recognized as a garment-industry leader in terms of labour standards. But that’s not to say that a job in a factory that makes Nike shoes is peachy. It’s still a hard life, by western standards. So is it good, or bad, for such labourers if a machine is developed that makes their services redundant?

As I’ve pointed out before, the workers vs machines conflict is, in the grand scheme of things, a false one. Machines can make workers more efficient (and hence valuable), can save humans from dangerous tasks, and can improve net social productivity in a way that stands to benefit literally everyone, in the long run.

But such generalizations don’t obviate the fact that there are some cases in which a new technology comes along and puts you out of work.

Unemployment is bad. Sweatshop jobs are bad. So do we celebrate or mourn when someone with a sweatshop job is put out of work? And is this a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils? Or the greater of two goods? And what does our answer to that question imply about the ethics of buying products made in the sweatshop jobs that remain?

Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

A few days ago, I blogged about the notion of “ethical oil”. That’s the label one advocacy group is applying to oil from Canada’s oilsands, to distinguish it from oil from Saudi Arabia, a country with a less-than-admirable human rights record. That, of course, is a gross oversimplification.

But it’s still an interesting ethical issue. I said,

In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction?

It’s important to point out that there are two reasons this is a false dilemma. One is that consumers don’t actually get to choose: oil isn’t labeled by country of origin. The other reason is that neither of the nations named above is perfect, from a social and human rights point of view; nor is either country perfect from the point of view of environmental protection.

But it’s a philosophical thought-experiment worth conducting. So, let’s imagine: you’re driving your car, and your tank is near empty. You’re at an intersection with two gas stations. One is the Saudi brand and the other is the oilsands brand. Which one would you choose?


(Again, I do realize this is a gross oversimplification. It’s not a real choice. It’s a thought-experiment to get you to think about the relative value of the environment and human rights. Let’s all be thankful it’s not a choice we actually have to make.)

Which Oil is the More Ethical Oil?

It’s a clever marketing strategy. But is there really such a thing as ethical oil?

In today’s National Post, the Fraser Institute‘s Mark Milke argues that there is, and that “the ethical oil tag is useful shorthand for why Canada’s oil is preferable to that extracted elsewhere.” But “preferable” is a pretty grand, global conclusion. It implies that, all told, Canada’s oil is better, ethically. And that may well be, but it’s certainly not obvious. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriotic Canadian, proud of my country and its accomplishments. But I’m also a critical thinker, and a critical thinker can’t accept unreflectively a conclusion that happens to coincide with his own biases. Indeed, the fact that Milke’s conclusion conforms so neatly to my own biases is a strong reason for me to look at his argument more closely.

His argument is basically that Canada’s oil is ethically preferable to the oil produced in other places, considering especially places with serious histories of violating human rights.

OK, so let’s try it out. Let’s look at a rough sketch of the perceived negative ethical implications of oil from the top 10 countries listed by oil production….

Russia — widespread political & economic corruption;
Saudi Arabia — oppressive regime; human rights abuses;
United States — capital punishment; crazy war on drugs; irresponsible financial institutions;
Iran — human rights violations; insane political leaders;
China — human rights violations;
Canada — environmental degradation; poor treatment of indigenous peoples;
Mexico — widespread corruption; ongoing drug war;
United Arab Emirates — undemocratic;
Brazil — crushing poverty; immense social inequality;
Kuwait — undemocratic; human trafficking and abuse of migrant workers.

Feel free to add your own potential points of criticism to the list. And, of course, you can add significant environmental concerns to the worries for all oil-producing nations. That goes with the turf.

Now we absolutely must not make the mistake of treating this like a checklist, or treating all of the ethical “bads” listed above as equally bad. They’re not. And the other problem with this list is that it presumes that the only alternatives are various countries’ oil. Presumably much of the criticism of tar-sand oil isn’t that it’s so environmentally-evil that it’s ethically worse than, say, Saudi oil. Rather, the criticism has to be that tar-sand oil is worse than renewable energy sources that we ought to be developing, like solar and wind and geothermal.

So while I think the “ethical oil” label is rather, well, crude, I think the people promoting that label are at least doing us the unintentional service of reminding us that it’s far from clear what counts as an ethical source of energy. (If you use slave labour to build a wind turbine, is that an ethical source of energy?) As my friend Andrew Crane points out there are many dimensions along which to evaluate the ethics of any product — including not just the intrinsic properties of the product but also things like the process of production and nation of origin. That certainly applies to oil. I just wish I could believe that the people pushing the “ethical oil” label for my country’s oil were doing it to advance the debate, rather than to score points in it.

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Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

Ethical Oil: Choose Your Poison

There’s oil, and then there’s oil. Right? Or is there only, you know, oil? Does it matter, ethically, where the oil we consume comes from?

That issue has arisen very recently and caused a minor diplomatic dust-storm: a Canadian ad offering a moral critique of Saudi Arabian oil specifically has apparently offended the Saudis, who have asked that the ads be taken off the air.

See this summary, by John Terauds for the Toronto Star: Canadian ethical oil ad stirs Saudi ire

A Canadian-made television ad that speaks out against oil imported from Saudi Arabia has raised the ire of the Middle Eastern nation, prompting it to send a threatening legal notice to broadcaster CTV.

The 30-second ad, produced by Toronto-based ethicaloil.org, focuses on discrimination against women in the conservative Muslim country….

But the ad in question isn’t just anti-Saudi oil; it’s a defence, by means of contrast, of good ol’ Canadian oil, derived primarily from the oilands (a.k.a. tarsands) of Alberta. Yes, the same oilsands that have themselves generated so much criticism on environmental grounds. Now it’s certainly not the first time someone has been accused of greenwashing the tarsands. But to slam Saudi oil as unethical in order to proclaim tarsands the ‘ethical alternative’ really does strain credulity.

Now the critique of Saudi oil isn’t entirely without merit. Saudi cultural standards for the status and treatment of women are ethically indefensible. But the “ethical oil” claim for the oilsands is a serious stretch, at least if it’s supposed to point to a bright and clear difference not just in particular ethically-salient characteristics, but in overall ethical goodness.

In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction? Interesting dilemma, in principle. But for most of us, it’s a moot point: oil (and the gas that comes from it) is an undifferentiated commodity, and we don’t get to choose based on nation-of-origin. So it’s not like the ad in question is really intended to help consumers make more ethical consumption choices.

More likely, what the group behind the ad is doing is the rhetorical equivalent of fracking, injecting the novel term “ethical oil” into existing debates over the oilsands, not because the term actually makes any sense, but simply in the hopes of stirring something up.

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Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

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