Focus: Corporate Responsibility - Unions 'must get own house in order' on sweatshops

Research reveals discrepancies between aspirations and actual practices in union purchasing policies, writes Anita Pati.

The ethical aspirations of trade unions in the UK are not matched by their actual purchasing policies, according to new research.

According to campaign group No Sweat, 70 per cent of trade unions say they would turn to NGOs such as the Fairtrade Foundation for advice on ethical and environmental supplier policies. But 60 per cent, it found, would rely on suppliers' own policy documents for their information, and only 20 per cent would seek advice from unbiased sources such as the Ethical Trading Initiative.

The activist organisation, which fights against sweatshop conditions worldwide, published the findings in conjunction with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and ethically sourced T-shirt company Footprint Clothing.

When asked what criteria they used when purchasing items such as office equipment and campaign materials, unions said that ensuring they were not produced under oppressive regimes or by child or forced labour were the most important.

However, only 20 per cent of unions actually had an ethical or environmental purchasing policy and, when asked what they looked for in suppliers, cost and quality scored two points higher than environmental responsibility on a scale of one to five.

Mick Duncan, a campaigner for No Sweat, said that although unions were showing solidarity with global workers, they were not translating this support into ethical purchasing policies. This meant they ran the risk of sourcing products from the same organisations whose workers they were representing.

"Trade unions have been very supportive of our campaign and have put lots of effort into attacking poor conditions, but it doesn't seem to be filtering through to their purchasing practices," said Duncan. "Purchase considerations were at the bottom of their concerns. Much more important to them were cost and speed of delivery."

Although only 11 questionnaires out of 69 were returned, the total membership represented by those unions that answered was about 2.4 million, approximately 37 per cent of total UK union membership. Participants included Unison, the PCS and the GMB.

Charlie King, research and policy officer at the GMB, said: "With big purchases we try to get everything right, but small purchases such as pens and pencils can unfortunately get overlooked."

No Sweat feels unions have a potentially influential role in the growth of fair trade, ethical purchasing and environmental protection. "But before we can shout about this stuff, we need to make sure we've got our own house in order," said Duncan.

- anita.pati@haynet.com

KEY POINTS

- Seventy per cent of UK trade unions say they would turn to NGOs for advice on ethical and environmental supplier policies, according to campaign group No Sweat

- However, most rely on the purchasers' word rather than consult unbiased ethical organisations for feedback

- The report recommends that unions should review their procurement policies, explore their role within sustainable development and CSR, and push for a UK verification body

- No Sweat conducted its first UK-wide student week of action against sweatshops last week.

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