Recently, during a discussion, one of the speakers claims: “There must be universal rules and they must be implemented”. We won’t focus on the relevance of such comment. However, we will try to list the attempts for universal rules I have quickly named “Universal Social Minima”.
The first obvious candidate is to define and implement simple level. It is for example what is done when we say that no worker should work more than 48 hours (+12 hours overtime) per week wherever in the world. If we were to globalize this approach, we would define minima reachable in each and every country. To be “reachable”, It would become a race to the bottom. However, we could still define principles this way as: The working area must be safe, working is a free choice…
The second option is usually to use the local laws. The principle is global: The social minima must match the local law. But, is it still universal despite we can state it as applicable worldwide? Anyway, this approach is the one mainly used in social compliance as it is checked through the audits. However, that bring important social dumping and we should keep it in mind when comparing factories or countries. Some countries refuse to write laws on some labor topics, or allow global derogation (as in free trade zone). That leads to a “cheap” compliance.
The third option is currently more and more discussed and used although it is not a new idea. Instead of using the laws, the level are calculated from several indirect parameters. The most advance topic with this approach is the salary with the concept of “living wages”. The principle is a worker should earn at least enough to live (food, clothes, lodging, health, education) himself and his direct family. The living conditions, the family size… differ from place to place, so is the “living wage”. A working poor in Europe hasn’t the same living cost to bear than an Indian working poor. However, this method faces several difficulties. It is a complex job to implement. The calculation can be difficult and must take many parameters into account if one wants it to remain relevant (living in a city, in the country side…). Interpretations and some choices are still under discussions (but that could be clarified). However, one important point remains. Some parameters can be volatile. This is the case of the food for example, which is a key component of the “living wage”. Food prices have greatly increase in 2008, leading to important strikes in Bangladesh and Egypt for example. Thus, changes on the price of cereals in international market could have a great impact on the “living wages”. This impact should promptly leads to changes in the wages (as workers budget time-frame in these countries are barely more than a month). It seems especially difficult to implement.
Having a universal social minima is not easy if we go to the details of the implementation instead of defining general principles. It seems not very responsible to make believe the opposite with requirements lists, especially for a social accountability approach.