Helsinki ( 02.11.2001 - Aino Pietarinen) "I expect the consumer movement to become more active and the Clean Clothes -campaign to take root in Finland," says Textile and Garment Workers' Union President Auli Korhonen, and she stresses: "The Fair Trade system is already part of our work and is helping to enlarge our knowledge of ethical production. The degree of attention given to ethical questions will depend on the activity of consumers and investors."
Ms Korhonen notes that ethical production has been on the textile and garment industry agenda for at least twenty years. Change is slow in coming, but some progress has been made. In their collective agreement the union and its employer counterpart commit themselves to respecting the industry's ethical guidelines and ILO conventions. Back in 1997 they agreed on ethical standards at European Union level.
According to Korhonen the next great step forward will be to tighten control over implementation of the agreement. Although she feels that more education and changes of attitude are still needed, she believes that international issues will gradually become part of everyday collective bargaining at workplaces.
In recent public relations campaigns enterprises have proclaimed their new ethical codes, stressing respect for ILO conventions or requiring adherence by their subcontractor chain, for example, to the SA 8000 -standard. Korhonen remains slightly sceptical of these campaigns and says that only the SA 8000 -standard, applied in Finland by the largest retailer Kesko, is really reliable. She considers this standard to be capable of implementation and to enable some degree of effective control.
"The codes of conduct of individual enterprises are praiseworthy efforts, but they are not fully reliable. This has been shown in many cases that have come to light involving child labour, discrimination against trade union organisation and substandard working conditions."
Implementation of ILO standards is similarly hard to oversee. Almost all countries have ratified the main conventions, but news of flagrant violations flows continuously, for example, from Asia and from Central and South America. Enterprise guidelines have been created primarily to promote sales, Korhonen suggests.
Korhonen hopes that enterprises will discard these parochial codes of conduct and begin to apply the SA 8000 -standard instead. She expects consumers to demand more information on the country of origin of products and, indeed, about the entire subcontractor chain.
"Such control also requires the trade union movement to remain alert," Korhonen says. "It should be present in collective bargaining by shop stewards. The Finnish textile and garment industry collective agreement requires subcontractor chains to be in good condition, but the national union has received few requests to check on working conditions or the state of collective agreements in enterprises abroad."
Korhonen stresses that her union can use its international connections to investigate the state of collective agreements etc., even in remote countries. Grassroots organisations have been hitherto unable to use this opportunity.
While well understanding the overburdened situation of local shop stewards, she insists that these matters should also form part of local collective bargaining. Korhonen reminds us that it is primarily local shop stewards who have immediate information on production transfers and the subcontracting chain.
"It is also important for Finnish workers that the state of these chains is good."
*Originally published at greater length in the monthly SAK magazine Palkkatyöläinen, edition no. 8-2001