H&m: Good Guys or Bad Guys?

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H&M doesn’t own any factories, but sources all their products from suppliers all over Europe and Asia. They have a Code of Conduct which must be adhered to by their suppliers. To make sure that this happens, they carry out regular audits. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) was the only independent auditing body mentioned in my correspondence with Elin Johansson of H&M. It is an NGO completely unconnected with H&M, whose aim is to end sweatshop conditions worldwide. Their audits are unannounced to company and factory.

It is tempting to be reassured by the fact that H&M was accredited as a participating company of the FLA, but the reality is that only a tiny percentage of factories which supply H&M are monitored by the FLA, and it appears that those that are, never meet the FLA benchmark or even the legal requirement when it comes to overtime.

The FLA only audits a percentage of H&M’s factories in China and Turkey, but H&M uses factories all over Asia and Europe, including Bangladesh, where human rights abuses in garment factories are extensive. In 2009 the only reports of these audits found on the FLA website were from China1.

H&M’s products come from 800 suppliers who in turn use subcontractors, 2,700 production units 2and hundreds of thousands of people making their clothes, shoes, accessories, etc. and yet the only tracking charts on the FLA website for 2008 are of 9 Chinese factories. What about the other 2,691?

What’s more, findings, following my reading of the FLA’s aforementioned tracking charts, show that the factories monitored consistently fail to meet the legal requirements when it comes to overtime.

In 2006, workers in a sweater factory were found to have taken overtime everyday of one month, sometimes until as late as 6.00am. In another factory they found that workers were not getting any days off in a week. Often, hours worked cannot be verified because there were discrepancies between time cards, production documents, and the words of the workers.

These inconsistencies mean that the auditors were not able to verify whether the factory was allowing a rest day for the workers, paying them their fair wages or if they are forcing them to work over-time.  For the factories mentioned, the FLA website offers no information about follow-up audits, company follow-ups or even third party verifications. 

This surely begs the question why was H&M’s Corporate Social Responsibility programme accredited for China in October 2008?  It seems that the FLA has come in to the factories to make a note of the human rights abuses found there, in order to then make a plan with a target completion date; but that plan always remains uncompleted. And yet there is no reprimand, but rather H&M actually becomes accredited.

“The FLA is built on a continuous improvement method, and accreditation is given to compliance programs that demonstrate the most serious and systematic effort toward labour compliance, “said Roopa Nair of the FLA, when I put this to her and asked why H&M was accredited.

So the fact that H&M are affiliated with such a good-looking body as the FLA simply means that they have decided to try to comply with the FLA’s benchmarks, and not that they are a rare innocent multinational.

In fact they are also supporters of the UN’s ten principles for Global Development3 and Better Factories Cambodia.4

Impressive initiatives, but when asked for some examples of improvements they had made since 1998 – when they started inspections – H&M responded that , “Demands for better lighting, ventilation and cleaning routines made a real difference to the working environment,” and “…there has been a real improvement in fire safety in the factories.” That’s in eleven years.

It’s true that transparency, fair wages and hours of work are changes which cannot come overnight, but when the Daily Mail published the story of “Swedish billionaire H&M owner to buy whole English village for £25million” 5 one must surely consider whether this isn’t more about the order of priorities?

1 See Fair Labor Organization’s Tracking Charts at:

http://www.fairlabor.org/what_we_do_public_reporting_b2.html last accessed 11th February 2010

 

2 Figures provided by Elin Johansson of H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB during my correspondence with her.
 

3
http://www.unglobalcompact.org/AbouttheGC/TheTENPrinciples/index.html last accessed 11th February 2010

4
http://www.betterfactories.org/ last accessed 11th February 2010

5
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1187039/Swedish-billionaire-H-M-owner-buy-English-village-25million.html last accessed 11th February 2010

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