Latest Developments in Labor Relations

So, have we seen any recent developments in the news about labor relations? Yes, in fact.
Perhaps the year’s biggest news on this topic came April 9, when the University of Wisconsin-Madison (usually referred to as Wisconsin) decided to end its licensing agreement with Nike over worker rights concerns.
The university wanted an explanation from Nike of why it closed two factories in Honduras without paying severance to workers. When Nike refused to address the issue, it violated Wisconsin’s code of conduct for companies making products with the university brand.
This is a very big development because of how Nike dominates the college sports world. Athletic departments earn lots of money for big schools like Wisconsin as long as the teams are successful. To have good teams, you must recruit good athletes. The sad but true fact is that a surprising number of athletes choose a college based on its uniform contract; in most cases, they want to wear Nike products. Actually, Kent State recently signed a football uniform contract with Nike because they were losing recruits solely due to having uniforms made by New Balance.
For Wisconsin to but worker rights over athletic success is very impressive and shows the strength of organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops.
One other piece of good news came in April from Wham-O, which is known for making popular toys like the Hula Hoop, Frisbee, Slip ‘N Slide and Super Ball. Wham-O had moved its manufacturing to five Chinese factories in January 2006, but has decided to move much of it back to the United States specifically because of labor relations.
Also, during a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I learned about the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, which works to improve workers’ rights in the Northwest United States. NWJP formed in 2004 and currently prioritizes a campaign against wage theft. An example of wage theft is a contractor hiring a day laborer, sending him or her miles away to work for a day and abandoning him or her there to find his or her own way home. More common forms of wage theft include not paying a worker for overtime or not giving a worker his or her final paycheck after he or she leaves the job.
While the NWJP focuses mainly on the state of Oregon, wage theft is an issue across the United States and results in workers having billions of dollars stolen from them every year. The most reported cases of wage theft come from industries like agriculture, poultry processing, janitorial services, restaurant work, garment manufacturing, long term care, home health care and retail.
Interfaith Worker Justice runs a website that posts a few new wage theft news articles every day at wagetheft.org, and its main website, iwj.org, has a Workers Center Directory where workers can get help for unfair workplace treatment. Organizations are trying to collaborate nationally more than ever so that they can easier educate the nation on campaigns to improve conditions for workers. I invite you to look at IWJ’s various campaigns, which also include affirming the right to join unions and urging Wal-Mart to provide more benefits to its employers.

By: Jody Michael

Unethical Companies: McDonald’s

Mostly everyone will enjoy McDonald’s every once in a while, even if you aren’t a fan of fast food. While the food may be cheap, it may come at more of a cost to the environment and the global economy than one might think.

McDonald’s has a negative impact on the environment in more ways than one. Aside from the pollution from factories where the food is produced, the unusable waste from nearly all the food they sell, and the massive amounts of power and energy that are required to keep all of the branches up and running, this corporation is destroying natural rain forests. According to http://www.dmoz.org/Society/Issues/Business/Allegedly_Unethical_Firms/McDonald’s/, McDonald’s likes to purchase their meat from privatised farms, which is not a problem in and of itself. The conflict arises when these privatised farmlands are built on the land where a lush rainforest once resided. So not only is McDonald’s polluting our air, but they are destroying a large part of what would help to clean it out. The trees that are levelled do more than just clean the air, though. They are also homes to thousands of animals that are likely killed or made homeless as the trees are torn down. This is not exactly a healthy step in making our world a better place.

The people at McDonald’s treat their employees no better than they treat our environment. McDonald’s staff are frequently underpaid for the amount of time that they work (which often extends into illegal amounts of labour hours), get little to no benefits along with this gross underpayment, and are oftentimes forced to work in unhealthy and unsanitary conditions. The farmers from which they get their food are also generally underpaid for the amount of produce and meat which they sell to the corporation, particularly considering the cost that many of these farms have regarding the environment and health of the farm workers.

McDonald’s claims to give back to the community and the environment by working with schools and local organisations, but what they repay isn’t nearly enough to cover the damages that they’ve caused.
By: Jennifer Reese

What Constitutes as an Unethical Company?

Ethics has often been a touchy subject, as it is almost completely based upon one’s opinions. This blog does not necessarily deal with all questions of ethics. For our purposes, we will simply be talking about moral and immoral decisions on the part of corporations and, to a lesser extent, those of the consumer.

A company, in the context of this blog, is categorised as ethical or unethical based upon their treatment of their employees those who are paid to make parts of whatever product they might sell and of the environment.

Many companies will attempt to portray an environmentally sound and economically prudent façade, as well as that of a friendly working situation. They may do this through the use of commercials, being locally and globally “active” to help the environment or those in need, or any other number of devious means of advertisement. However, that is not always the case, and this sort of propaganda is usually spread to make the companies look good, endorse the product, or generally encourage people to buy the product.. The majority of these companies pay their workers minimum wage, and pay the people who provide them with the means to make their products even less. The company will hire someone to find the cheapest way to make a certain portion of their product, and often that means paying someone in a foreign country less than a dollar a day to make hundreds or thousands of the same things for nine or more hours a day. These people, along with the continental employees, are often subjected to poor and unsanitary working environments, and are provided few (if any) benefits to help them keep up with bills and the general costs of daily life on these low salaries. The toll that these companies are taking on the environment is not much better. Rainforests are destroyed, factories spew out massive amounts of smog and other pollutants into our air, and small homes, local businesses, natural reservoirs, etc. are taken over, just so that the corporations may have a little more room to expand business and make more products, so that they may continue to make a huge profit by spending as little as they can on labour and the people whom they employ.

It would be hard to consider anyone who engaged in such activities to be “ethical.” And that is why, for the sake of this blog, that is the standard definition of an unethical company.
By: Jennifer Reese

Google and China

One piece of news that has shocked the business world this year was the decision for Google to stop censoring its searches in the People’s Republic of China. In a changing business environment where morals are increasingly thrown out of the window in exchange for profits, this move is a breath of fresh air. But is this move just a public relations ploy, or a true stand on behalf of the human rights of the consumers?

China has long been notable for its policy of Internet censorship. As a result of what has been dubbed “The Great Firewall of China,” access to websites or images relating to the Tiananmen Square incidents or the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong has been restricted. As a one-party state, the Chinese government uses such measures to avoid stirring up the people to challenge their rule. As such, when foreign companies want to secure a share in the Chinese telecommunications market, they find they have to play by the rules of Chinese censorship. Despite this being contrary to the principle of freedom of speech that many these companies were built upon, many companies have sold their proverbial souls in order to compete for the fast emerging consumer market in China.

In 2006, Google began its own Chinese language search service that followed the censorship laws of the People’s Republic of China, at google.cn. Many people accused Google of selling out and violating it’s own supposed motto of “Don’t be evil” (This motto is actually a simplification of the sixth of ten corporate philosophies of Google: “You can make money without doing evil”). While Google did agree to censor its results, it could be applauded for its efforts as compared to rival Yahoo.  According to a 2006 article from Fortune magazine’s online service (http://money.cnn.com/2006/02/15/news/international/pluggedin_fortune/index.htm?cnn=yes), Google claimed it would not allow the Chinese government to use its user information by locating its servers outside of the nation. This data could be used to punish those who performed activities that the government considered subversive. In comparison, Yahoo has stated that it cannot promise the confidentiality of those who use its services from the officials. In certain instances, the corporations has turned over information about dissidents that led to them being incarcerated, though the company claimed to have no knowledge of the nature of the demands.

In January of 2010, Google announced that it would no longer censor its search engine according to the People’s Republic’s censorship laws. This was in response to an attempt by hackers to access e-mail information of noted supporters of human rights within China. This move was earth shattering within the business community. It is very rare for a corporation to give up a potential lucrative market out of principle. However, it must be noted that Google was not the market leader in China. According to the BBC, prior to Google pulling out, it held only around a third of the market share, while the Chinese search engine Baidu accounted for over 60% of the market. According to article from CNN, less than two percent of Google’s revenues come from China (http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/01/13/google.china.analysis/index.html), making this move have a fairly soft financial impact on the corporation. And one cannot ignore the good publicity this is awarding the company, which has arguably secured its spot as a golden child of the Internet in the eyes of many.

Despite this, Google’s action has turned the attention of the public to the lack of Internet within China. And rather than quietly withdrawing from the market, it has called upon other corporations to withdraw from the market and supported legislation in the U.S. Congress that would create an annual list of nations that restricted Internet freedom (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/mar2010/tc20100324_284005.htm). In an interview, Google co-founder Sergey Brin asserted that all businesses should make it a “high priority” to publicize China’s poor human rights record. Some other Internet companies also followed Google’s lead by withdrawing from the industry. For instance, GoDaddy.com stated it would no longer sell domain names within China.

Whether or not the move was solely due to a commitment to their ethics, Google’s move has to commended. It seems that it is becoming increasingly rare for companies to put human rights as a high priority, much less pass up potential profits for them. While this move will likely do little to change human rights and Internet freedom in China, it has to be seen as a good first step. Hopefully other corporations can follow their lead and work to improve human rights in foreign nations and for their own workers. As Google is trying to show, “You can make money without doing evil.”

Gary Rose

Welcome to Ethical Footprint!

This is a blog about making moral purchasing decisions run by members of the Post-Colonial Literature colloquium at Kent State University. We appreciate you taking the time to look at our blog. We hope what you find will be interesting and informative to you!

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