While on an airplane early this morning flying to Tampa Florida, this author had the opportunity to catch-up on business magazine readings.  Two articles published in two different editions of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided us more evidence that labor social responsibility trends concerning global-based production sourcing will occupy more agenda time for supply management and other executives. Labor activism continues to be a trend among so-termed, lower cost manufacturing regions, and the implications are significant for cost and product branding considerations over the coming months.

Supply Chain Matters has featured a number of commentaries concerning the ongoing social responsibility developments concerning Bangladesh, specifically those impacting apparel and retail supply chains. The production of garments and apparel accounts for 6 percent of that country’s GDP, and almost 80 percent is exported to other global markets. In the April 28- May 4, 2014 edition of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the article: For Bangladeshi Women, Work is Worth the Risks, profiles a trend of a predominantly female dominated workforce in that country’s garment factories.  This article profiles a mother who was injured but able to survive the fire that occurred at the Tazreen Fashions factory killing 112 of her co-workers, yet she continues in her occupation to better the livelihood for her children.  It cites that in 2011, according to a Yale University study, about 12 percent of Bangladeshi women, ages 15 to 30 worked in the garment industry and that hunching over a sewing machine in a 10 hour shift is perceived as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to better the lives of their family members. According to this article, despite the deaths of at least 2000 factory workers since 2005 because of fires and accidents, women in this nation view apparel factory work as a means to claw their way out of poverty, yet they continue to fear for their personal safety and a decent work environment. The cited Yale University study indicates that 27 percent more of young girls have been able to attend school and obtain a basic education than before the garment industry began its increased sourcing in the country.

However, global retailers and factory owners remain at a crossroads as to actively supporting industry initiatives, consortium funding mechanisms and product sourcing incentives to improve basic safety and working conditions among the country’s apparel factories.

A contrast concerns China, where a once predominantly female workforce among this country’s electronics, apparel, and other industries has transformed to a more male dominated workforce. The May 5-May 11 edition of BloombergBusinessWeek features an article, China’s Young Men Act Out in Factories.  It quotes a spokesperson at Foxconn, the largest global contract manufacturer, that: “…the factory workforce is now about two-thirds male and more “rowdy” than when it was half female five years ago. The younger generation doesn’t want to continue doing work that is very mundane.” The article points to the trend of a more activist workforce willing to undergo work stoppages to gain more economic benefits. Other workforce issues, such as on-the-job sexual harassment that include offensive comments and grouping of female workers are cited. The article quotes a source as indicating that the recent labor strike involving athletic shoe producer Yue Yuen Industrial was led by 100 all-male workers.  Contract manufacturers Foxconn and Flextronics are reported to be responding to these demographic workforce shifts by sponsoring “date nights” and other worker counseling programs.

What struck this author were the contrasts and similarities for both reports.  A female dominated workforce in Bangladesh for the most part, endures workplace perils to sacrifice for the better good of families.  A now predominately male workforce in China has become much more activist and vocal for motivations of career, marriage, and future benefits. The commonality is increased activism, appealing to social conscience and the collective voice of many to stop abuses and the taking of workers welfare and advancement opportunities for granted.

The primary motivations for the era of global outsourcing, namely significantly lower costs, is being challenged among multiple industry supply chains. A surgical approach to these trends is to address them in isolation.  A general assumption that social responsibility and conscience can be outsourced or belongs solely to individual suppliers is wearing thin.  There needs to be monetary qualifiers and incentives that address a brand owner’s commitment to social responsibility in the same light and milestones that are affixed to many of today’s environmental responsibility commitments.

Adding more pressures for increased automation or production robots for specific supplier factories, finding the next low-cost sourcing alternative, negotiating for even lower unit costs or adding more action phrases to corporate social responsibility policies that umbrella the supply chain are not the sole remedies. An industry social conscience needs to step forward, one that positions supply chains squarely into key performance indicators and performance objectives directly related to achievement of global social responsibility.

Bob Ferrari