Absolute disgust is what drove Heather White to found a nonprofit consulting firm promoting fair labor conditions for factory workers. Ironically, that contempt wasn't for abysmal factory conditions, but for the business-school students she taught at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
In a class she led on Asian economic growth, a guest speaker shared stories of conditions in Asian factories: forced pregnancy tests for women, beatings, child labor, and harassment. But the students were unmoved. "Their attitude was, 'This happens in every country. Any jobs are better than no jobs,' " says White, 45. "I was disturbed that we were producing business leaders who didn't feel corporations had responsibility for labor practices in their factories."
White, who had spent 15 years as an independent import agent in China, knew all about the apparel industry's supply chain and labor conditions, and she spoke fluent Mandarin. She thought that with constructive prodding, companies could wield their influence to change workers' lives. So she founded Verite, which conducts factory inspections for companies such as Tommy Hilfiger, Disney, and Timberland in 66 countries by teaming up with local nonprofits.
Verite provides high-quality audits that uncover factory violations, yet forges productive partnerships that encourage companies to promote better working conditions. Its work directly improves the lives of more than 170,000 workers each year. "Verite has been instrumental in helping raise the standard on what supply-chain reporting should look like," says Conrad MacKerron of the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow. "They are truly pioneers."
Verite's work goes far beyond inspections. It works with companies to fix the problems audits uncover. To address the widespread abuses Chinese workers experience, for example, Verite joined with Timberland to launch a mobile van program that travels to factories to teach workers about their rights involving organizing and overtime pay. It also pushes for sweeping change in the systems that drive abuses. Through its work in Saipan, Verite uncovered the widespread problem of migrant contract workers who pay labor brokers thousands of dollars to "buy" jobs in factories abroad, where they work in indentured servitude to pay off that debt.
And Verite is pursuing research with teeth. It is working with the State of California's CalPERS retirement fund to link labor conditions to economic performance. That information is helping the fund select which countries to invest in. To White, all of these gains are just the beginning. "I see this as being the early stages of a global social movement," she says. "We still have much to do."
-- Cheryl Dahle
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