Ethics and our business

16 May 2004

Human rights, decent behaviour, social involvement, and acknowledgement of the ethical treatment of animals are very laudable goals. The developed nations have more or less achieved these goals, but unfortunately the developing world, where hunger, illnesses and hardship rule, hasn't even begun to consider improvements. In underdeveloped countries, human beings are suffering immensely and it is totally unrealistic to demand that they assume western attitudes towards social problems. Their first priority is to eat and simply survive. I believe that the European leather industry is, again, like it was in the anti-pollution movement, a front-runner in industrial circles by adopting important social rules way back in July 2000 with the Cotance Code of Conduct, which can be found in detail at the Cotance website [] and I will highlight only some points which I find personally the more important. The Code of Conduct is, today, part of a project on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), that Cotance undertakes with its social partners (the European Trade Unions), SAI (the world's most renowned social standard SA8000) and the University of Nyenrode (the most prestigious business school in the Netherlands) in order to study and overcome economical, social and religious obstacles that stand in the way of implementing human rights in its broadest terms in the working environment of the leather industry on a global scale. Acknowledging the fact that our industry has more or less a clean conscience for what happens within the communal EU borders, the same cannot be said for the great majority of nations with which we entertain commercial ties. We have, therefore, a choice: we can either close an eye and ignore extra-EU situations in order not to risk our commerce, or we can try to demand step by step from our foreign trading partners that they adopt a code of conduct that satisfies our requirements. I believe it is morally unacceptable that we import carpets, toys and other manufactured goods, leather articles included, from the Far East which are made by under-age children when we ban child labour within our own borders. The choice is, therefore, easily made: we must promote a social upgrade from our trading partners. That is, of course, easier said than done. Child labour is widely spread throughout the whole industry. It starts with children looking after herds grazing in the fields. They overlook the transport of animals. In Morocco, ten-year-old kids assist butchers during slaughter operations. These kids become totally immune to the fact that a living creature is being killed when they should maintain their innocence and go to school to learn instead the values of life and play in the street. Children who handle live cattle are actually very proud of their job and display bravado, even a sadistic tendency to show their power over something that is stronger and bigger than them. Children also work in tanneries and factories that produce leather products. Non-discrimination of employment is a very difficult matter as religious and social beliefs are involved. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive a car, let alone find themselves a job. Hence female jobs are covered by underprivileged imported labour. In many societies, women are used for manual jobs, which are not good enough for men. Dehiding in Russia is mainly done by women and women have to manage in freezing cold or boiling hot warehouses in the CIS, curing hides and preparing them for shipment. For the Russians, that's a typical female job. So much for manicured hands and painted nails. Financial needs dwarf the necessity of reasonable working hours and decent working conditions which are, of course, rather subjective definitions by themselves. For some, it seems reasonable to work 60 hours per week, others seek to work only 35 hours, which raises a legitimate question about reasonable pay. Furthermore, we have to see things in the right perspective. A worker in China who stitches for 8-10 straight hours in a garment factory gets a monthly paycheck of $120 against an average urban pro-capita income in the same region of $78 per month. In short, the worker provides for cheap labour, under conditions unacceptable in the EU, but she is being paid 50% above the average wages which allows that worker to buy commodities that would not be within her reach at the basic rate of $78. Who are we to take this away from her?! How do we define decent working conditions? Especially in a weak economy with a large percentage of unemployment, workers risk being blackmailed to keep their jobs. I have seen Native Americans work in a Canadian tannery under conditions which are unbelievable and, for Europe, unthinkable. Live electrical wiring in beamhouses for overhead moving bridges put Russian workers in older tanneries at great risk from electric shocks. Drums turning without a minimum of protective barrier invite fatal consequences in case of a minor mistake. Slaughterhouses in several countries offer working conditions, quite apart from the unhygienic conditions, which are absolutely appalling. In today's society, workers fear and oppose changes because on too many occasions, these represent the loss of jobs. From the EU point of view, the Cotance initiative is an act of decency owed to human beings at the other side of the world. We abhor both slave labour and child labour and we believe in freedom of association and equal opportunities. All we'd like to do is transfer our sound social feelings to elsewhere where they do not exist. Pushing things to the extreme by imposing our standards on countries that violate our principles may, however, prove counter productive. We would risk making life extremely difficult, even impossible, for those whom we wish to help. So what we need to find is a way to implement our social beliefs without offending the religious, cultural and social habits of our foreign partners. The unknown factor in this equation is how the developing countries will react to the European initiative. Are they up to the challenge put before them and are their governments willing to cooperate? How to guide the western consumer society to sustain the Code of Conduct through its purchases without making use of summary punitive expeditions such as Peta has launched against the Indian leather industry two years ago? Will specific labelling of leathergoods be a solution or should the CE mark become a guarantee for European consumers that their purchases are not supporting a social wilderness. One thing is for sure, Cotance should not be left alone in this cause. Reverting to my earlier Limeblasts about the future and modernisation of ICT, I believe that this is where ICT should grab the opportunity and reshape its image by sustaining Cotance's initiative. They should integrate the International Hide and Skin Contract in collaboration with ICHSLTA with social and environmental clauses. Unic has already pushed its members to adopt the Code of Conduct. A common cause like the one at hand might bring ICT, ICHSLTA and Cotance together again to the benefit of the whole industry. It's never too late! Sam Setter [email protected]

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