Certifying companies based on an internationally recognizable standard to improve labor conditions

Overview

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Social Accountability International (SAI)

Social Accountability International (SAI) has developed a set of voluntary corporate social responsibility standards called SA 8000. SA 8000 includes a code of conduct for labor conditions, based on established international standards, and a verification system to ensure compliance. In order for a company to receive SA 8000 certification, it must pass monitoring inspections by SAI-certified auditors. The auditors closely monitor the companies before and after certification to ensure their capability to comply with the standards and to require their collaboration with local experts. After certification, the auditors conduct a surveillance audit every six months and then a full audit every three years. Accredited auditing bodies also undergo semi-annual surveillance by SAI. Social Accountability International (SAI) develops voluntary corporate social responsibility standards and certifies companies based on their implementation of these standards. The first of these standards, Social Accountability 8000 (SA 8000), includes a code of conduct for labor conditions and a verification system to ensure compliance.

SA 8000 draws on established business strategies for ensuring quality (such as those used by the International Standards Organization (ISO) 9000) and add several elements that international human rights experts have identified as essential to social auditing. In broad terms, SAI enables organizations to be socially accountable by:

  • Convening key stakeholders to develop consensus-based voluntary standards;
  • Accrediting qualified organizations to verify compliance;
  • Promoting understanding and encouraging implementation of such standards worldwide.

SAI was founded in 1997 as the Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (CEPAA). SA 8000 was a joint initiative among businesses, human rights NGOs, and trade unions, all of which have representatives on the SAI Advisory Board. Because of the need for standardization, these sectors came together to establish a code of conduct based on existing international standards along with a parallel verification system. Members of the Advisory Board brought together expertise in the fields of human rights, child labor, labor rights, socially responsible investing, auditing techniques, and management of large supply chains. After the initial drafting of the Standard by the staff at SAI, the members of the Advisory Board met in various committees and sub-committees to finalize the language. The standards were then distributed to others outside the Advisory Board for critique. The Advisory Board continues to meet three times a year to evaluate and improve the standards, certification, and accreditation system.

Once SA 8000 was drafted, SAI conducted field tests to verify its effectiveness. Part of this testing took place in factories in the United States, Honduras, and Mexico. The trial run, conducted in October of 1997, tested the code’s feasibility by examining whether the factories had the capacity to comply with the standard, whether the information for verification was likely to be available, and whether the standard was useful. Soon after, in 1998, SAI tested the code in agricultural environments in the US State of California, Spain, and Costa Rica. These tests were not meant to evaluate the facility but rather the availability of information that would allow SA 8000 to be effective.

The system developed by SAI has two levels of qualifications: accreditation of auditing bodies by SAI, and certification of production facilities by SAI-accredited auditors. The auditors closely monitor the companies before and after certification to ensure their competence to comply with the standards and to require collaboration with local experts. After certification, the auditors conduct a surveillance audit every six months and then a full audit every three years. Accredited auditing bodies also undergo semi-annual surveillance by SAI. As of June of 2001, 66 facilities in 20 countries are certified to SA 8000 and approximately 1500 are in the process of being evaluated in the hope of becoming certified. The desire for companies to become certified is often based on the requests from customers who wish to do business with SA 8000 certified companies. SA 8000 certification gives consumers a reasonable assurance of compliance with standards.

The SA 8000 system is modeled on the one used by companies to ensure quality control: ISO 9000. Over 300,000 production sites around the world use certification of conformance to ISO to demonstrate to customers that their production systems ensure quality. SA 8000 builds on the proven merits of ISO auditing techniques: specifying corrective and preventive actions; encouraging continuous improvement; and focusing on management systems and documentation that prove these systems’ effectiveness. In addition, the SA 8000 system includes three elements essential for social auditing:

  • Specific performance standards set with minimum requirements;
  • Auditors are required to consult with and learn from interested parties, such as NGOs, trade unions and, of course, workers; and
  • A complaints and appeals mechanism allows individual workers, organizations and other interested parties to bring forward issues of noncompliance at certified facilities.

SAI also offers training programs to workers groups, companies, auditors, NGO representatives and other interested parties.

As for the impact of SA 8000, SAI has received encouraging reports that quality and productivity have improved for SA 8000 certified companies in countries such as France, India, Thailand and the United States. On the other hand, some companies in countries such as India do not have the resources necessary to proceed with certification. There are two types of costs involved in the certification process: first, auditor fees paid to the auditing bodies for their verification services; second, the cost of making changes necessary to comply with the standard. These costs may impede smaller companies or companies in poorer economies from becoming certified. Despite these issues, SA 8000 and SAI's certification program serve as an effective combination through which to promote and verify socially responsible business practices and give ethical purchasers the assurance that companies are following international norms regarding labor standards.

 

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