The British House of Lords debated corporate governance this week, mentioning the issue of forced child labour in Uzbekistan in the cotton industry and a corporate pledge to oppose the practice .
Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) has created a pledge to be signed by US and European companies and/or brands and retailers to publicly state a collective firm opposition against the use of forced child labour in Uzbekistan cotton.
The debate highlights many of the crucial issues facing other legislatures around the world as they struggle to devise ways for corporations to become more ethical and accountable to universal human rights standards yet avoid excessive government regulation at a time when businesses are trying to create jobs in a global recession. Members of parliament are gaining a growing awareness of the need to better reporting on corporate practices and compliance with labor rights.
Baroness Young of Hornsey is among those taking the lead in the House of Lords on corporate accountability. As an arts consultant, she has worked with a number of cultural associations and museums. Currently, she is in the process of setting up an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ethical Fashion. She has worked with a number of NGOs concerned with ethical and sustainable fashion, including Made-By, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Cotton Made in Africa, and is also a patron Anti-Slavery International.
As Baroness Young noted:
Many of us balk at the idea of introducing more legislation and complex regulation, especially when some businesses are taking the initiative. For example, the Responsible Sourcing Network has created a pledge for US and European companies publicly to state their opposition to the use of forced child labour in the harvesting of Uzbeki cotton and to refuse to use it in their products. There must also be firm action from the EU, and from the Governments and importers in those countries that trade with Uzbekistan.
A necessary first step, such a pledge should ultimately be institutionalized:
Self-regulation and voluntary measures on their own are not always enough to secure the necessary support for the people and environments that are most vulnerable to exploitation. Reacting to stakeholder demands for greater transparency and responsibility, Governments in Europe and the US are legislating on corporate governance and accountability. In 2008, Denmark adopted an amendment to the Danish Financial Statements Act requiring large businesses and listed and state-owned companies to account in their annual reports for their work on CSR. Spain has made a similar move with the Sustainable Economy Act, which will come into force in March 2011.
The Company Pledge against Forced Child Labor in Uzbekistan Cotton states as follows:
We, the undersigned companies are working to ensure that forced child labor does not find its way into our products. We are aware of reports documenting the systemic use of forced child labor in the harvest of cotton in Uzbekistan. We are collaborating with a multi-stakeholder coalition to raise awareness of this very serious concern, and press for its elimination.
As a signatory to this pledge, we are stating our firm opposition to the use of forced child labor in the harvest of Uzbek cotton. We commit to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child labor in its cotton sector. Until the elimination of this practice is independently verified by the International Labour Organisation, we will maintain this pledge.