It seems that not a month goes by without different global labor standards, practices and violations working their way into the headlines, damaging the credibility of retailers, apparel companies and others tied up in front page news stories highlighting the latest egregious transgressions in some far away land. The most recent example comes courtesy of popular retailers Marks and Spencer and Gap who, according to the above-linked article, "have reportedly launched inquiries into abuse of working regulations at their Indian suppliers, which have resulted in children as young as six being left alone while their parents work." The alleged and admitted supplier labor violations go beyond this, however.
Consider that "factories were using workers hired through middlemen, and paying them as little as 25 pence an hour." Moreover, suppliers potentially face overtime (i.e., underpayment) violations as well. In one case, "Gap admitted wage and overtime violations" and as a result required that its supplier reduce working schedules and make up for the difference with workers that "have been illegally underpaid." Gap is not alone, unfortunately, in facing this problem. Despite the continued focus both the media and retailers give to the subject, child labor violations continue to crop up in nearly all low cost countries regions producing textiles, garments, footware and other labor-intensive consumer products.
Knowing violations will happen is, perhaps, the best defense we have. But we must make suppliers as paranoid as we are. As buying organizations, we need to let suppliers know they're being monitored and to ensure material penalties for non-compliance. Supplier information management (or supply base management) tools that focus on supplier on-boarding, surveying, monitoring, quality management, auditing and development can play an important role in reducing the chance of labor violations. Yet technology alone is not enough -- frequent surprise on-site audits and visits are essential in a world where at least some global suppliers will game the system to maximize profits at the expense of human decency just about any chance they'll get.