Salt & Light: Passionate About Human Dignity

Father Oliver Williams, who has spent decades working with developing countries, explains why the UN Global Compact might be the best hope for enduring global change.

Friends often ask me why I spend countless hours as a member of the Board of Directors working to advance the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), a voluntary corporate social responsibility movement. What follows is my answer.

In my time at Mendoza, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of countries in Africa and Asia, including some of the poorest in the world. I witnessed, first hand, people working in sweatshops under extremely inhumane conditions, often making apparel and other products for some of the leading firms in the developed countries. Was not this wrong for multinational firms to use people this way, treating them without any regard for their God-given dignity? Many did not see it this way.

In 2000, I published a book titled, Global Codes of Conduct: An Idea Whose Time Has Come, which included essays by many of the major scholars in the area as well as appendices with most of the major codes contending for the global ethic. In my view, the crucial issue was gaining a consensus on the norms that should guide the global economy. One of the issues that emerged with the globalization of the economy is the lack of common agreement on the appropriate ethical norms that should guide business, especially in developing countries.

Is a multinational company responsible for human-rights violations of its subcontractors? What are appropriate ethical norms for guiding a company’s environmental policy in a country where there is no legal framework, at least in practice?

These questions took on added importance in the 1990s as multinational companies outsourced much of the production capacity to subcontractors in developing countries. The press and some NGOs played a crucial role in informing the public about the inhumane working conditions in factories that provide many of the products for multinational companies in the developed world. For example, the producers of a line of clothing carrying the name of Kathie Lee Gifford, a noted U.S. television personality, were widely criticized in the press for using child labor and running sweatshops.

Nike was often the poster child for this reprehensible behavior, but the company, at first, would accept no responsibility, claiming that the subcontractors were independently owned and operated. In Nike’s view, the firm did not violate any ethical norm by not monitoring how its subcontractors treated employees. After a long consumer boycott, Nike later changed its position, formulated a code of conduct for its suppliers, and became what many consider a model employer. Because the Nike case and several other similar situations were covered so widely in the press, it was a teachable moment. Much of the public became better educated about some of the serious problems with globalization.

It should be clear that the call for a global ethic was coming not only from concerned citizens and NGOs, but also from some members of the business community. For business, predictability is a key concern and gaining a consensus on moral norms would enable a more predictable environment. Globalization, technology and the Internet have shrunk the borders of our world, bringing peoples, cultures and economies together. Business had already learned that this new world required global standards for its product and production processes, and now it was learning that there was a need to have global ethical standards.