What I’m Reading: Workers’ Rights in China; Fair Trade USA Splits from Fair Trade International; and the Need for Truly Groundbreaking Leadership

A company is made of many components – ideas, strategies, products, research, buildings, the list could go on and on. But, there is one thing intrinsic to all companies, and that is very simply the people who come to work there every single day.

Unfortunately, business has a long history of devaluing and mistreating its most valued asset. That was pretty clear in this week’s news.

Reports came in of a mass suicide protest at the Foxconn factory in China, the largest electronics manufacturer. It’s a terrible symbol of the sorry state we find workers’ rights in worldwide.

Foxconn, which employs some 430,000 people in its compound in Shenzhen, produces something approaching half of all the electronics purchased in America (including products by Apple and its competitors). The plant has 25 lunchrooms that each seat about 10,000 people.

Clearly, this scale of employment is a good thing for China, a country with perhaps a hundred million young people entering the workforce each year. And they work hard: While the official Chinese workday is 8 hours, the norm at Foxconn is more like 12 and even longer when the introduction of a product is at hand. Sometimes they suffer serious problems as a result of their work.  One worker died after a 34-hour shift. Because of the repetitive nature of the labor, workers hands often become deformed and useless within a decade, rendering them unemployable.

The news comes at the same time that Fair Trade USA announced its split from Fair Trade International, in order to move “in a new direction to significantly increase the effectiveness and reach of the Fair Trade model.”

I’m one to applaud the effort and philosophy of Fair Trade USA, but at the same time I’m skeptical, believing that it has only given us a false sense of comfort.

Today, hundreds of millions of workers are subject to treatment and conditions that would horrify you (such as Foxconn). There are 450 million wage workers in agriculture worldwide, including more than one million in the US, most of whom are vulnerable undocumented immigrants.  Whether it’s forced labor conditions and modern forms of slavery unpaid wages, sexual harassment or child labor, it’s hard to argue that things have significantly improved over the past decade.

It’s clear that it’s time – in has been so for a long time – for leaders to take on solutions to worker injustice and equity.

There is hope: Trust Across America, an organization dedicated to creating a gold standard for trustworthy business behavior, released its 2012 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior (full disclosure: I’m on this list). I share this not to shine a spotlight on myself, but to urge you to check out the 99 other leaders making strides in building the next generation of business – they are thinkers, doers, and architects of the future of business.

These leaders are the epitome of what Rich Tafel calls for in his thought piece “True Leadership Means Wrestling Away the Steering Wheel” on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog. He writes: “The social innovation movement in America must develop a new type of leader who is ready to tackle complex, unjust systems at their roots.”

I encourage you to read these articles, then, become part of the solution: If companies want to solve these problems they can. To do so they need to take responsibility for measuring and improving working conditions. And they need to listen to the voices of workers directly.

If you want to learn more, get involved and make a difference visit www.verite.org (Full disclosure: I’m a board member of Veritee).

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