Sarah is a staff writer for Justmeans on Corporate Social Responsibility. She currently runs the CSR programme at her company, Munro & Forster Communications (M&F), as well as leading their environmental consultancy work. M&F is based in London and specialises in health, wellbeing and public and voluntary sector communications activity, including communications strategies, PR, media ...
Why Can't We Have CSR in the Public Sector?
The UK public sector is unwittingly supporting child labour by failing to source supplies according to ethical trading standards.
The Ethical Trading Initative (ETI), a body which campaigns for workers rights and ethical trade worldwide, said the UK Government needs to play a much stronger role in driving ethical purchasing across the public sector. Its failure to implement standard CSR practices in its own supply chain means that thousands of children in Pakistan are known to be making surgical instruments for the UK.
The problem is not just restricted to Pakistan, or to child workers. Adults in Pakistan work twelve hours a day, seven days a week and some suffer serious injuries as health & safety standards are so low. In Mexico, poorly paid homeworkers make face masks used by the NHS and in Malaysia immigrant workers are making surgical gloves in dangerous conditions with the risk of burns from hot latex. This is clearly a CSR issue and in the private sector would be treated as such.
UK public spending on goods and services is huge - £125 billion a year. With this level of procurement, government has the opportunity to influence labour practices. However, the ETI claims many of the workers who supply goods to the public sector such as nurses' uniforms, work long hours for a pittance.
Now representatives from businesses, health bodies, trade unions and the public sector are joining forces to call for Government to take action. Their own CSR efforts are hampered by the structure of public sector procurement.
At an ETI conference earlier this month Dr Mahmood Bhutta of the British Medical Association, spoke of his attempts to get ethical purchasing adopted across the National Health Service. He said it was vital to have 'leadership from the top'.
He said: "It seems counter-intuitive that the government states its support for ethical purchasing, but then, so far, has done very little such purchasing with public money. It's time the government caught up with the private sector."
Another supporter of this initiative is the public sector union Prospect. The union has recently created 40 new international development worker representatives, whose job is to push for ethical procurement in their own workplaces.
Beverly Hall from the union said that although the government had signed up to the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to eradicate global poverty, disease and injustice, it is still failing to put its own buying power to good use.
She said: "If the government can spend £19 billion a year on IT equipment they can jolly well specify in their contracts that workers should be treated in accordance with international labour standards and the Millennium Development Goals."
The chair of the ETI, Martin Cooke, said that the current drive for efficiencies in public spending could provide more opportunities for ethical spending.
Isn't it time for the public sector's CSR commitments to match those of the private sector?
Photo credit: Arifur Rahman