The FIFA syn­drome

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The ar­rest of FIFA ex­ec­u­tives on a raft of fraud and cor­rup­tion charges has been front-page news in re­cent days and weeks. But the charges brought by the Swiss and Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties fo­cus on bribery and em­bez­zle­ment, and do not ad­dress an­other egre­gious injustice: the treat­ment of the mi­grant work­ers in Qatar who are build­ing the sta­di­ums for the 2022 FIFA Foot­ball World Cup.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional re­cently re­leased a re­port on the abysmal con­di­tions in Qatar. The work­ers are sub­ject to un­safe con­struc­tion sites, ex­ploita­tive re­cruit­ment agen­cies, and lit­tle re­course to for­mal jus­tice. Re­cently, Nepal’s labour min­is­ter pub­licly spoke out about the gov­ern­ment of Qatar not al­low­ing his coun­try’s mi­grant work­ers to re­turn home to mourn rel­a­tives who died in the April earth­quake.

As Amnesty In­ter­na­tional notes, the re­spon­si­bil­ity lies pri­mar­ily with the Qatari au­thor­i­ties. But FIFA had – and still has – a re­spon­si­bil­ity to act. There have also been calls for spon­sors, in­clud­ing McDon­alds, Visa, Coca-Cola, Adi­das, Bud­weiser, Gazprom, KIA, and Hyundai, to place pres­sure on FIFA and Qatar to im­prove work­ing con­di­tions.

Such is­sues have arisen in re­cent years in other sec­tors as well. In April, Hu­man Rights Watch is­sued a re­port on the treat­ment of gar­ment work­ers in Bangladesh. The re­port, prompted by the 2013 Rana Plaza col­lapse, in which more than 1,100 peo­ple died and over 2,000 were in­jured, high­lighted poor work­ing con­di­tions, in­ad­e­quate build­ing in­spec­tions, weak labour laws, and the need for fairer wage prac­tices and legal benefits.

Be­yond th­ese ex­am­ples, there have been many oth­ers. In tech­nol­ogy, Ap­ple and Fox­conn have faced crit­i­cism for work­ing con­di­tions at their Chi­nese pro­duc­tion sites. Even ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions, such as New York Uni­ver­sity’s new cam­pus in Abu Dhabi, have been tainted by episodes of work­place ex­ploita­tion and abuse.

Th­ese are not iso­lated cases. For ev­ery dis­as­ter and high­pro­file case that hits the head­lines, there are many more that we never hear about.

Nonethe­less, one hopes that the treat­ment of those who make the goods, pro­duce the ser­vices, and build the things that make us happy and pro­duc­tive – from cloth­ing and tech­nol­ogy to sports sta­di­ums and col­lege cam­puses – con­tin­ues to come un­der scru­tiny. Glob­al­i­sa­tion should force man­agers – and all of us – to do some se­ri­ous think­ing about labour prac­tices around the world.

Here is where it gets com­pli­cated. What counts as a com­pany’s work­force? Are “its” work­ers only those peo­ple on its own pay­roll? Are com­pa­nies re­spon­si­ble for their prod­ucts’ en­tire sup­ply chains? To what ex­tent can – and should – a com­pany be held to ac­count for the choices of those who may be sev­eral links re­moved? When a se­ri­ous is­sue has been brought to a com­pany’s at­ten­tion, are its man­agers obliged to ad­dress it, even if it in­volves the sub­con­trac­tor of a sub­con­trac­tor?

The larger and more com­plex the com­pany, the harder it is to track all of the firms with which it does busi­ness, the firms that they then sub­con­tract to, and so on. Com­pa­nies, not sur­pris­ingly, say that their re­spon­si­bil­ity extends only so far. But that is not an an­swer; it is a choice. Or­gan­i­sa­tions can de­cide to ex­tend their reach. They can even de­cide that they want to know the full prove­nance of all ma­te­ri­als and com­po­nents in their prod­ucts, and that they will hold their ex­tended sup­pli­ers to ac­count.

In this sense, the larger the com­pany, the greater its re­spon­si­bil­ity. But larger com­pa­nies also have a larger abil­ity to be­come a force for good, both lo­cally and glob­ally. If a com­pany the size of US re­tailer Wal­mart de­cides that it will not al­low waste­ful pack­ag­ing, its pur­chas­ing power will lead to changes in pack­ag­ing for the en­tire re­tail sec­tor. The same is true of wages and labour prac­tices.

When the world’s big­gest com­pa­nies and most well recog­nised brands take se­ri­ously their re­spon­si­bil­ity as buy­ers, sell­ers, and man­u­fac­tur­ers and make a firm com­mit­ment to act on core val­ues, oth­ers tend to fol­low – or risk be­ing left be­hind. Those that op­er­ate in an eth­i­cal man­ner and seek to im­prove the lives of all who are as­so­ci­ated with the man­u­fac­ture, mar­ket­ing, and dis­tri­bu­tion of their prod­ucts will ben­e­fit from ku­dos, more busi­ness, or sim­ply not be­ing sin­gled out as a bad ac­tor.

By con­trast, com­pa­nies whose man­agers be­lieve that a com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place is no place for eth­i­cal be­hav­iour will suf­fer if and when con­sumers take their busi­ness else­where; gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion and fines force them to act; or they be­come un­able to at­tract an ed­u­cated and ever-more dis­cern­ing work­force. All of it – the con­stant scru­tiny, the bad press, the tar­nished rep­u­ta­tion – will hit their long-term stock prices.

Much the same is true for or­gan­i­sa­tions like FIFA. When spon­sors like Coca-Cola or Adi­das be­lieve that their rep­u­ta­tions will be tar­nished by as­so­ci­a­tion with an or­gan­i­sa­tion en­gaged in cor­rupt prac­tices, they will take their brand-man­age­ment dol­lars else­where.

Com­pa­nies are made up of peo­ple. Pay­ing fair wages, adopt­ing eth­i­cal sourc­ing prac­tices, and up­hold­ing the dig­nity of work­ers should be a part of the way they cal­cu­late their suc­cess. Those who dis­con­nect them­selves from the fate of oth­ers, who act with­out con­science or a sense of right and wrong, and who spurn or­di­nary hu­man de­cency have no place run­ning or­ga­ni­za­tions or sit­ting on com­pany boards. The things that make us happy must not come at an un­for­giv­ably high price.

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