Labour Behind the Label

FAQ: A company sent me a copy of their code of conduct, what is it?


A code of conduct here refers to a list of labour standards. Those who sign on to codes pledge to adhere to these standards in their workplaces. Some companies have drafted their own codes, campaign groups, trade unions and NGOs have also drafted model codes which they believe are more comprehensive.

Putting a code of conduct on a website or sending it to consumers is not a guarantee that workers’ rights are being respected.This is not to say that codes cannot be useful. They can be used to hold companies to account for conditions in their supply chain and, if workers know about the codes and what they contain and if their is a system in place for them to anonymously report code violations they could be a tool for organising. But many of the codes used by companies have had little impact in challanging violations of workers’ rights.

Below are examples of the kinds of codes companies use and why they may not be effective.

1. Codes that are just PR tools

Some company codes do represent a genuine effort to improve conditions, but many are only public relations tools intended to deflect consumer inquiries about workplace conditions. These are likely to have weak or vague standards (see below) have no explanation about who they apply to and how they are implemented, will have no information on how the standards are monitored and verified and the company themselves will offer little explanation about how the code is used beyond expecting their suppliers to comply. Often the only monitoring systems are corporate controlled, with no role for workers or other stakeholder.

2. Codes where the standards are too weak

The guiding principles for acceptable working conditions in the garment industry are comprised of the core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and several additional standards. Briefly, these include: freedom of association, right to collective bargaining, no discrimination of any kind, no forced or slave labour, health and safety measures,  a maximum working week of 48 hours and voluntary overtime of maximum 12 hours, the right to a living wage, the establishment of an employment relationship. A good code will include all these elements. Many don’t include either freedom of association, long working hours or living wage and some only talk about child labour, forced labour and safety. Even if codes do include all the above, often the detail is vague or inconsistent. For example a number of companies say ‘workers must be paid a living wage’ but in the detail they equate this to a minimum or industry standard wage, which is not the same thing.

3. Decent codes that aren’t implemented

Even when companies have good codes, for example the base code Ethical Trading Initiative members sign up to, they are not worth much if there aren’t proper procedures in place to implement, monitor and verify these standards. It is not sufficient for the company to just introduce the code and assume that this is enough. Companies have to evaluate whether the code is actually implemented and then monitored by establishing appropriate checks and measures in cases of violation of the code, including accompanying corrective measures. This process is sometimes also called “internal monitoring” or “company monitoring.” Of course a company can easily say that there are no labour rights violations. But can we believe them? From the sourcing company’s point of view, its more important to re-assure the consumer, than to solve the workers’ problem. Therefore, only where verification comes from an organisation operating independently from the company concerned, can it be relied on.