Labor Union Keeps Cleveland Plant Open

As of December 2009, German suit manufacturer Hugo Boss announced its intention to close its Cleveland-based plant. While the company is famous for high-fashion men’s garments, the Brooklyn factory in particular only produces two lines of suits. This was one of the reasons cited by Hugo Boss for publicizing the plant’s imminent closure, set to take place in late April 2010. According to the company’s official statement, the Ohio location “is not globally competitive” enough (abc NEWS). Shutting down the factory would cost upwards of 300 jobs.

Following the statement by Hugo Boss, the company entered into negotiations with Workers United, a labor union representing the 300 plus employees of the Cleveland location. But what exactly are labor unions, and what do they do for the workers they represent?

Labor unions began making themselves known during the time of the American Industrial Revolution and are divided into two different types. Those classified as trade unions appropriately represent employees in a certain trade, while industrial unions support groups in certain industries. In either case, labor unions offer mediation between the large corporations and the little guys – the workers (UnionSmart.org).

Trade and industrial unions often use collective bargaining, in which workers will group together in order to negotiate with their employer for higher wages, better working conditions, or other benefits in the work environment. The union’s role is to better the work experience for the employees, yet keep the corporation in business. Oftentimes if the workers’ demands are not met, the union will organize a labor strike in the hopes that it will drive the company to concede, although the threat of a strike can be just as beneficial (UnionSmart.org).

In the case of Hugo Boss, a strike would not have been favorable, seeing as the manufacturer intended to close the Cleveland plant anyway. However, Workers United and Hugo Boss were able to come to an agreement in the days immediately preceding the scheduled closing of the factory to keep it up and running, saving the hundreds of jobs that would have been lost. Additionally, wages will not be cut, and the Ohio-based Hugo Boss will be able to become more globally competitive by reducing other costs and increasing flexibility of manufacturing. The deal was also driven by actor Danny Glover, who urged others in Hollywood not to wear the company’s suits to this year’s Oscars. His support of the workers helped to draw attention to the situation taking place (Manufacturing.net).

While labor unions help to obtain better working conditions and higher wages for the workers they represent, they may also be viewed in a negative light. Some corporations like Wal-Mart have been known to actively oppose unionized labor, and it has become harder for them to operate since the time of the Industrial Revolution.

By Alyssa Parnaby

Child Labor

When you buy something, do you stop and take the time to think of the hands that made what you are purchasing? Every day, children all over the world work to barely earn a living. It is estimated, according to UNICEF, that one in 6 of the world’s children experience child labor. These children have to work to survive, and they may often be the main source of income for their families. One very important thing to do is define child labor. A child age 5 to 11 who works at least one hour of economic work (hired and paid) or 28 hours of domestic work (i.e. family business) in a week, and children ages 12 to 14 who work at least 14 hours of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work are child laborers. Finally any children ages 15 to 17 who work over 43 hours of domestic or economic work are considered child laborers. These standards determine the safe amounts of work children can do; any more work, and it is considered harmful for the child.

Child labor is in some developed countries, but it is nothing like the child labor that exists in the third world. There are rigid regulations and laws that help to prevent child labor in the United States and in other parts of the world. Work regulation is almost nonexistent in some countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Children here often work hard days and nights barely being able to sustain their families. In Africa, child labor makes up for 32% of the works force; 22% of the workforce in Asia is made up of children; and in Latin America, 17% of the workforce consists of child labor. These are huge numbers compared to just 1% in the U. S., Canada, and Europe.

Child labor is not invisible, either.  Their labor is used in factories, mines, agriculture and in many other areas. Many large, popular companies have been found using child labor. Nike and Coca Cola, two big name companies that you have probably seen in other posts on Ethical Footprint, have both been accused of using child labor on different occasions. Apple Computers has also come under fire when it was discovered that there were children working in some of its factories in China. These three names are only companies that have been discovered to be using child labor. Who knows how many companies are sneaking by with unethically produced clothing, toys, furniture, etc.

Although many of these these kids are far away from the United States that does not mean there is nothing you can do. A little research can make a big difference, and it can open your eyes to how many big companies use children to get cheaper cost of production. A good place to start is UNICEF. This organization has been working for the rights and well being of children for years. Another way to help is to just talk about child labor. Some people just do not think about it, so start a discussion. Education is a very powerful thing, and it can be a great tool in helping to stop child labor.

By: Joe Cancelliere

Fair Trade

While there are many products you may have to think twice about purchasing, or should avoid if possible, there is one type of product you can always count on.

Those products are fair trade certified products, and they can help in the mission to become an ethical consumer. “Fair trade standards are established by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) and address social and economic development, environmental management, and labor conditions of Fair Trade farms” (TransFair USA). The strength of fair trade is that it helps the producer and the consumer. “You’d be forgiven for thinking Fair Trade was about the price, but it isn’t. 100% Fair Trade is about relationships. Relationships between people both locally and globally, relationships between organisations up and down the supply chain, and the relationships between the consumer and producer” (World Fair Trade Day).  When you purchase fair trade products you are supporting their 10 standards, many of which address basic human rights and match up with many modern desires.

“Organizations who buy Fair Trade products from producer groups either directly or through intermediaries ensure that no forced labor is used in production and the producer complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and national / local law on the employment of children” (World Fair Trade Organization). People and their rights are the main focus of these standards. “100% Fair Trade is a total commitment between people to deliver a prosperous and sustainable future for the good of the planet and for the good of mankind” (World Fair Trade Day). It’s also about helping impoverished people. “The organization supports marginalized small producers, whether these are independent family businesses, or grouped in associations or co-operatives. It seeks to enable them to move from income insecurity and poverty to economic self-sufficiency and ownership. The trade supports community development” (World Fair Trade Organization). The organizations which are approved by the World Fair Trade organization are held to many standards which are intended to better the lives of employees. “The organization respects the right of all employees to form and join trade unions of their choice and to bargain collectively. Where the right to join trade unions and bargain collectively is restricted by law and/or political environment, the organization will enable means of independent and free association and bargaining for employees” (World Fair Trade Organization). The companies are monitored to ensure that these conditions, among many others, are met.

In America, the Fair Trade Federation was established in 1994 as the North American Alternative Trade Organization, or NAATO. The name was switched to the Fair Trade Federation in 1995. “Fair trade seeks to change the lives of the poorest of the poor who frequently lack alternative sources of income. As North American fair trade organizations grow, they employ more and more individuals in their communities” (Fair Trade Federation).  Rather than taking American jobs to other countries, as you may suspect, the products represented by these organizations aren’t necessarily in production in North America. You also don’t have to worry about the prices of these goods being too much more than normal prices. “Most fair trade products are competitively priced in relation to their conventional counterparts. Fair trade organizations work directly with producers, cutting out exploitative middlemen, so they can keep products affordable for consumers…” (Fair Trade Federation). This form of trade is about making life better for all people, and for fostering balance and self-sustainability. “The Federation envisions a just and sustainable global economic system in which purchasing and production choices are made with the concern for the well-being of people and the environment, creating a world where all people have viable economic options to meet their own needs”(Fair Trade Federation).

In the UK the FairTrade Foundation was established in 1992. “Our vision is a world in which justice and sustainable development are at the heart of trade structures and practices so that everyone, through their work, can maintain a decent and dignified livelihood and develop their full potential” (Fair Trade Foundation). Since 1998 the sales of Fairtrade certified products in the United Kingdom have increased from 16.7 million to 799 million, in 2009. In 2008, FairTrade’s organization found that 70% of people recognize the FairTrade symbol (see below). They also found that 1 in 4 shoppers are consistently buying products with the FairTrade Label (Fair Trade Foundation). These trends are continually expanding. On May 11th, 2010, Fair Trade Foundation published a press release saying that a recent “survey showed that Fairtrade clearly adds value to products and strongly impacts on people’s intention to buy. An overwhelming 90% of active ethical consumers say the FAIRTRADE Mark on pack helps the product create a positive impression and many say it makes them more likely to buy specific brand. What’s more, over 60% of existing purchasers are likely to recommend Fairtrade to friends and colleagues” (Fair Trade Foundation). These increasing numbers can say only good things for Fair Trade’s progress.

As a consumer you can become more ethical by looking for these labels on products you regularly shop for. Some popular fair trade items are coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh fruit, sugar, rice, vanilla, flowers and honey (TransFair USA).  The Fairtrade Labelling Organization says there are “…thousands of products that carry the FairTrade mark. Fairtrade standards exist for food products ranging from tea and coffee to fresh fruits and nuts. There are also standards for non-food products such as flowers and plants, sports balls and seed cotton.” (Fairtrade Labelling Organization) While you may not be able to find all the products  you’re looking for in Fair Trade form, you have to start somewhere. Ethical consumerism is about taking the small steps necessary to make a big difference, in your life and in lives all over the world.

By: Hailee Monk

Nike- Just Don’t Do It

In an earlier post, I researched Nike’s code of conduct and the prevalence of public thought about such codes of conduct. Though I briefly mentioned Nike’s poor performance in complying to its own standards, I felt that a more in depth coverage of the corporation’s practices was necessary. Thus, in this post, I will explore further three aspects of Nike’s unethical trade practices: its refusal to fully compensate its workers with fair wages, its continual use of unsanitary and unsafe conditions in its factories, and its use of child labor around the world.

In my previous post I mentioned an article describing the extent to which Nike fairly pays its workers.  As you have seen, this amounted to very little. The Article found that, in some factories, “ … workers are still paid less than the local minimum wage.” Obviously, A company cannot present itself to be ethical if it does not even pay workers the area’s already low minimum wage. Another website compared the minimum wages of countries which house Nike factories and interviewed an Indonesian factory worker: “ “If I don’t work overtime, I can’t survive,” says Baltazar at PT Hasi Nike factory in Jakarta. He works an average of 40 overtime hours a week.” Nike cannot continue to support this kind of labor—the idea of someone working eighty plus hours a week, just to survive, should not be acceptable in the twenty first century.

Though Nike has been trying to give the public an image of itself as a changed company, Nike has failed to better the working conditions of its factories. For example, one article suggests that “ … significant health and safety issues still remain. Workers in some sections of the plant still faced overexposures to hazardous chemicals, and to heat and noise levels. Respiratory illness rates remained a concern”.  Another article uncovered that, in addition to health hazards, many of Nike’s factory workers have to deal with ” … widespread verbal and physical abuse, shockingly high rates of sexual harassment, forced overtime, [denial of] sick leave, inadequate access to medical care, and … worker deaths.” These working conditions must be improved and Nike’s actions cannot be tolerated.

Probably the most frightening practice employed by Nike is its use of child labor. One case study observed that children around the world, “ … some as young as 4 and 5 years of age, are involved in the production line.” The disparity in wealth between nations is so great that children in one country produce the toys for another country’s children. For example, the case study suggests that “ … if you go to a shop to buy your child a new soccer ball … there is a good possibility that the ball has been made by someone your child’s age or even younger.” It seems that the ” … Nike success story is not based on good name and advertising alone but also attached to it is the tears of tortured workers and child labor.”

As a final note, I encourage readers to make an effort to change this world for the better. Until Nike pays workers fairly, improves working conditions, and ceases its use of child labor, decrease the amount of Nike products that you use. And this should not just apply to Nike. Research the companies and brands you buy from daily and try to limit transactions with those which have questionable ethical backgrounds. By consciously thinking about where the things we buy come from and making just small changes in our purchasing decisions, we can greatly improve the lives of many people around the world.

So as to buying that new pair of Nike sneakers: Just Don’t Do It.

Media Representation?

As a journalism and mass communications major, I always find media representation interesting. It’s intriguing to see what is deemed deserving of media coverage and what isn’t. Business and consumer ethics seemed to me to be extremely newsworthy topics for all outlets. I surmised that it would be an interesting and applicable topic to all audiences.

After perusing the Internet for a while in search of articles and specials on this topic, I was surprised to find very little.  I looked at the websites for all the major news outlets, and after searching each one, I found very little relating to the topic. This, I find interesting. It says a lot about the news media in general. The media is in complete control of what it gives attention. I found more articles along the lines of “Ten Great Tips for Summer Fun” than I did about a serious humanitarian problem occurring all over the world, in every country and city.

I found that more internationally focused news outlets and publications centered on business and finance had more content to offer on the topic of unethical business practices. The BBC website came forth with several relative articles when I searched for terms like “sweat shops,” “child labor,” and “unethical businesses.” I did find that many articles in this field, particularly those related to conscientious shopping, were outdated, as if it were “old news.” When searching for articles pertaining to conscientious shopping, I was directed to an article written in 1999 whose external links on the topic had all closed down. Has the media lost interest in spreading important awareness about topics such as this?

Bloomberg Businessweek had a few articles pertaining to unethical business practices within the Walmart Corporation concerning treatment of its own employees and interpretation of the corporation’s ethical codes. A Walmart employee, strictly operating under Walmart’s policy of reporting any suspicious activity among other employees, reported her superior for what seemed like insider trading. The company covered the superior, claiming that what she did was only mistaken as insider trading. The identity of the lower employee was disclosed to the higher manager without her consent and the employee was discharged by Walmart to be transferred to another store. However, it’s not guaranteed that she will be reinstated in another store within 90 days. After 90 days, the offer is null and the employee is out of luck. The media does a mediocre job of reporting about American companies for their internal unethical business practices, but what about where their products come from? I found no articles pertaining to where Walmart’s products come from, who really assembles them and how these facts are an even greater testament to Walmart’s unethical ways.

The news media needs a reality check concerning what it decides to cover. The educated community has no desire to read flighty articles about staying cool in the summertime. Audiences should be seeking solid information concerning topics that affect our world today, unethical business practices for instance. Whether we realize it or not, we are all consumers. We are all inherently connected to this system of exploitation and unfairness. Workers around the world are paid pennies per day to make products we use every day.

The news media, in this case, does not serve its audience well in informing them. A consumer is more likely to find important information on special websites such as http://www.aflcio.org/corporatewatch/stop/ and http://www.organiccoupons.org/blog/2008/10/50-must-read-blogs-for-the-conscientious-organic-shopper/. These websites are dedicated to spreading awareness about the painful truth of the industrial world and sharing tips for conscientious shopping.

By: Hannah

Kent businesses

One possible way of reducing your ethical footprint is to shop local. Sometimes it can be difficult to decipher which of the local stores are providing the best or the most ethical products. Smaller businesses often purchase products that come from the United States, are fair trade products, or sometimes even come from your hometown. Local stores often have many products which were purchased under ethical conditions, but that does not mean they all do. One of the most important things you can do as a consumer is also very simple—ask!

We did just that; on a recent trip to the downtown Kent area a few students working on this project made that just our mission. We headed to some popular shops in the local Kent areas to ask questions about products and where they came from.

The Works

The Works is what you might describe as an eclectic shop of sorts. It is filled with everything from blankets to jewelry to bags and mugs to household decorations. With such an assortment of items the question of where things come from may seem overwhelming. When presented with such a variety of objects you can’t necessarily find out where everything comes from, but you can find out about individual items. If you have something particular in mind, a friendly sales associate can probably give you a few details on where that product came from. Off the top of her head, our sales associate was able to tell us where many of the items scattered around the front of the store came from.

  • Garden ornaments (recycled) come from Kentucky
  • Woven blankets from the East Coast
  • Hanging decorations from Chicago
  • Art from a local Akron gallery (Artist Don Drumm who graduated from Kent State)

On top of these items the sales associate informed us that many items they purchase are fair trade items, often coming from a catalog. The store also purchases items from ‘normal’ catalogs, but they aim to purchase unique pieces that are one-of-a-kind. People visit their store looking for unique, handmade items, and that’s exactly what they find. If you’re in the local Kent area, stop by and take a look, but don’t forget to ask where your purchase comes from!

Last Exit Books

Last Exit Books is a safe place to shop to begin with. Their products are books—but they aren’t new books. These books have been used and resold back to the shop. Buying reused products is one of the best things you can do. The money doesn’t go back to the big corporations which may have produced them;  reused book stores are also a part of the small shops you may find in your home town, stores you would probably want to support. On top of the good things buying used does for your ethical footprint, this shop goes beyond just this in order to be ethical.

  • Reusing plastic bags (rather than throwing them away)
  • Won’t throw away books—if a book won’t sell, he will GIVE it away before trashing it
  • Never selling books at full price

If you are looking for a place to purchase books in the downtown Kent area, this is the place for you!

Empire

You can tell that Empire is an interesting place from the moment you walk in. The walls on the left are lined with products, on the right there is a table with jewelry and a display of handmade chocolates. The middle of the room is bare of products—instead it has seating. In the back there is a screen, behind it a comfortable looking area. Empire is best known around campus for its weekly Ladies’ Night, where you can get free henna. We stopped in to see if they had anything else to offer.

  • The line called Mystique is created by a local woman, Susan Smith
  • House of Bittersweets (in Stow) creates all of the chocolates in-house; it is Empire’s store
  • Magic crystals are made from industrial waste

The crystals are one of the most interesting things we learned about. They are made from industrial waste. They smelt quartz and silica which would usually end up in a pit, buried in the earth. This helps cut out the amount of waste produced. The sales associate also told us about the jewelry that is sold at Empire, emphasizing that they are very careful about where their products come from. The water buffalo jewelry is hand carved from water buffalo in Vietnam. The buffalo die naturally, and every part of it is used in some form or another—the buffalo are the most important part of life. Although these products are not made locally, it is easy to trace where they come from and knowing their path is certainly a step in the direction of becoming a more ethical consumer.

Kent Natural Foods Co-Op

The Kent Natural Foods Co-Op is one of the places you would most expect to find ethically created and purchased products The goal of the Co-Op is to purchase as many local products as is possible. Of course, one can imagine that this tends to be seasonal.

  • Local produce in Summer from Kent or Brimfield
  • Eggs are purchased locally. The furthest the eggs come from is Clinton, OH.
  • Hummus and tahini from a local middle eastern store in Akron, and is homemade.
  • Herbs from Frontier (another co-op)
  • Local soaps and skincare from Meadowlake Farms in Hiram
  • Locally produced goat soap and goats’ milk cheese from Kent
  • Teas from Dalton, OH who grow their own mint and produce their own tea
  • People bring in items (some men had brought in mushrooms the day we were there)
  • Maple syrup, honey, bee pollen and products, all made locally
  • Cheese from Middlefield, OH, Fredricktown, OH, and from Amish country
  • Milk from Wooster

One of the interesting things about the locally purchased milk was that it came in glass bottles. Consumers then recycled the bottles, bringing them in and getting fresh milk in them.

It is easy to see that there are many options for locally created products in local areas, especially in Kent. Simply walking into a store and asking questions or looking at tags can be an answer. Many clothing articles in Fig Leaf were made in the USA, and there are also other used stores in the downtown area, one which sells records, one, Rehab, which sells used clothing. Nearby is also a Goodwill and local restaurants and coffeehouses which aren’t chains. The idea of being an ethical consumer is one that can easily be put into action: it simply requires a little forethought and maybe a couple of questions.

By: Hailee Monk, Alison Darr, Monique Brunatti, Hannah Potes

Always Low Prices…But What About Cost?

We’ve all seen those commercials – the ones where a tantalizing burger is topped perfectly with crisp lettuce, the bun looks like it just was just baked, and everything is stacked up perfectly. Those are the commercials that make you crave that Big Mac. Yet when you finally pull away from the drive-thru window, the lettuce on your sandwich is wilted, the bun is squished into a pancake, and you have to restack everything before you dare to bite into it.

So what about those other commercials that we’ve all seen? A Wal-Mart associate smiles back at you from your television, beckoning you with the ultimate family image and low prices. Just like that Big Mac, you assume that what you see is what you’ll get at the supercenter, but when you wander through the doors past the Wal-Mart greeter, you wonder how all their employees seem to be in a perpetual bad mood.

The answer is simple, and it lies in the Wal-Mart 2010 Financial Report.

As of the 2010 fiscal year ending on January 31, the 8,416 Wal-Mart stores spread worldwide had racked up net sales just over $405 billion dollars – more than any other corporation. The company’s gross profit margin has been on the rise for at least the last five years, coming in at 24.8%, and net sales also continue to increase.

With astronomical numbers like these, you’d think Wal-Mart’s employees would be thrilled to come to work every day. But instead of enjoying the success of their employer, the majority of Wal-Mart’s associates face wages falling below the poverty line and less-than-adequate healthcare.

The average, full-time Wal-Mart employee, as of 2008, made only $20,774 per year, translating into almost $1,500 under the poverty level. At the opposite end of the scales, CEO Mike Duke pulled in over $12.2. $12.2 million dollars, that is. With increasing profits and record sales, the company could certainly afford to be paying their sales associates adequate wages (Wake Up Wal-Mart).

As if these wages aren’t bad enough, Wal-Mart mentions nothing of its overseas suppliers, which sometimes pay their sweatshop workers mere pennies a day to work in monotonous, unsafe conditions. Does the phrase “Made in China” sound all too familiar? The biggest supplier, not surprisingly, is China, which exported $18 billion in goods to Wal-Mart alone in 2004 (Wal-Mart’s China Inventory). Additionally, the Wal-Mart corporation is “legendary for quite straightforwardly telling [suppliers] what it will pay for their goods (The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know). But with the power it wields, the only thing worse than meeting the company’s demands might be not doing business with it in the first place.

Wal-Mart clearly stands at the top in ruthlessly dictating every aspect of business, right down to the rights of the corporation’s own workers. Countless allegations have been made by Wal-Mart’s employees that they were never compensated for work done on their breaks or other off-the-clock intervals (Wake Up Wal-Mart).

And it doesn’t stop there. On the Health and Wellness Fact Sheet, Wal-Mart’s Website boasts that their healthcare plan has some of the lowest premiums, ranging from $9 to $27 dollars per pay period. However, what they don’t tell you is that the annual out-of-pocket sum is over $5,000 before Wal-Mart begins to pay anything, and for families whose income is generated from the corporation alone, it comes close to one quarter of the earned income. Instead, Wal-Mart employees are turning, or even encouraged, to take advantage of government-funded programs like Medicaid. In 2009 alone, this cost taxpayers slightly less than $45 million dollars (Wake Up Wal-Mart). Should we be spending our hard-earned dollars just so that CEO Mike Duke can enjoy his profits? I think not.

So what does this all amount to? Unfriendly Wal-Mart greeters, cashiers, and sales associates. And who can blame them?

Wal-Mart’s empire revolves around low wages, worker exploitation, outsourcing, and inadequate healthcare so that they can bring you the lowest prices. Always. Ultimately, the decision is yours, but I, for one, refuse to be another enabler.

By Alyssa Parnaby