Who holds companies to account for false claims about corporate ethics?

GMB at M&S 2

The report from BBC’s Panorama about the use of Syrian child refugees to manufacture garments for the UK retail industry is shocking.

The youngest worker was 15 years old and he was working more than 12 hours a day ironing clothes before they were shipped to the UK.
A spokesperson for Marks and Spencer said … “Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S. All of our suppliers are contractually required to comply with our Global Sourcing Principles, which cover what we expect and require of them and their treatment of workers.

GMB has previously exposed how Marks and Spencer’s Global Sourcing Guidelines are not worth the paper they are written on. At their distribution centre in Swindon, M&S have hidden behind a convoluted supply chain and staff costs have been reduced by use of so-called “Swedish Derogation” contracts which had unethically evaded the equal pay provisions of the Agency Workers Directive. The GMB union has been campaigning on this issue for over two years now, and as a consequence of that campaign the agency who directly employs hundreds of staff working at the Distribution Centre recently replaced the Swedish Derogation (also known as Regulation 10) contracts. The result has been pay rises of between 11% and 44% for GMB members, depending upon shift payments and numbers of hours worked.

However, it is worth noting that M&S took no responsibility for conditions in its own Distribution Centre in Swindon, and did not consider the abuse and exploitation of the agency workers thereto be a breach of their Global Sourcing Guidelines.

This is why we are justified in being sceptical over M&S’s claim, quoted by BBC that:

Marks and Spencer says its inspections have not found a single Syrian refugee working in its supply chain in Turkey.

Indeed the BBC says:

But Panorama found seven Syrians working in one of the British retailer’s main factories. The refugees often earned little more than a pound an hour – well below the Turkish minimum wage. They were employed through a middleman who paid them in cash on the street.

Companies like Marks and Spencer invest in their brand image, and it is highly unfortunate that the corporate spin is effectively rubber stamped by the Ethical Trading Initiative, which includes trade union endorsement.

M&S are not the only company to boast of their ethical credentials, which actually behaving like exploitative sharks. In February the GMB called for Fyfes to be expelled from ETI

14 women workers in Honduras were hospitalised in December after being poisoned by the noxious chemicals they were forced to handle without any personal protective equipment says GMB.

GMB is calling for Fyffes, the Irish multinational fruit company, to be expelled from the Ethical Trade Initiative because of sustained and repeated violations of human rights on its plantations in the Central American republics of Honduras and Costa Rica.

Bert Schouwenburg, GMB International Officer, said “If the Ethical Trading Initiative fails to take action against Fyffes given this appalling record, it will confirm suspicions that it is little more than a talking shop which does not merit UK taxpayers’ support. Fyffes should immediately be expelled.”

It is excellent work from BBC in exposing the exploitation of child labour in the M&S supply chain. The company can claim they did not know, but they ought to have known, and the clues would be in the prices submitted to them by their suppliers, and the clearly visible conditions that the workers were enduring, that would surely have been apparent to any genuinely rigorous audit programme.

But the TUC, and trade unions, need to look hard at how they effectively allow rogue companies to parade an endorsement from the Ethical trading Initiative without sanction when they are actually behaving unethically.

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