- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

NEW YORK Nearly 40 companies from around the world have signed up for a voluntary U.N. program designed to ease the impact of globalization on workers and the environment.

The Global Compact was conceived in 1999 to encourage good corporate citizenship by emphasizing human rights, fair labor practices and respect for the environment. Its members are mostly businesses, with union and nongovernmental organizations participating.

Nike, Royal Dutch Shell and DuPont are among the corporations that have embraced the compact's nine principles of good corporate citizenship, contributing case studies in problem solving to the initiative's Web site.

But watchdog groups warn that sweatshop operators, chronic polluters and abusive multinationals could take advantage of their U.N. affiliation.

"The U.N. has handed these companies a public relations coup," said Charles Kernigan, director of the National Labor Committee, a U.S.-based group that monitors factory conditions and workers' rights in the developing world.

"If these companies would just disclose the names and addresses of the factories they use, that would be worth 1,000 global compacts," he said.

Nike whose factories in Indonesia, Vietnam and El Salvador have been cited as places where underpaid workers endure harsh conditions is still "a 100-percent offender," according to Mr. Kernigan.

But Nike's program to improve factory conditions in Southeast Asia, based on thousands of interviews with its workers, is being offered to other multinationals as a case study in how to do business in the Third World.

Members of the Global Compact advisory panel acknowledge they have no way of enforcing compliance with all of the compact's environmental and human rights goals. Nor do they have a system by which they can eject a backsliding or abusive corporation from the program.

"If they fall short of the standards they are setting themselves, there will be no shortage of critics to sort that out," said Bill Jordan, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free State Unions and a member of the compact's advisory panel.

"Believe it or not, we're still working on how to get people into the club" rather than out, he said.

The Global Compact grew out of a 1999 plea by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to business executives at Davos, Switzerland, urging them to share the fruits of globalization with the poorest nations.

U.N. officials say the effort is necessary to blunt the potentially devastating impact of globalization on the developing world. Various U.N. agencies including the International Labor Organization, the U.N. Environment Program and the High Commissioner for Human Rights deal with aspects of the issue.

Michael Doyle, a senior advisor to Mr. Annan, says more than 300 companies have sent letters expressing an interest in joining the compact, which he calls "a club for mutual education in which global companies, unions and [nongovernmental organizations] gather together and try to solve problems with practical ideas."

So far, about three dozen multinationals, factories and oil companies have undertaken projects in line with the Global Compact's nine principles, including Bayer AG, DuPont, Royal Dutch Shell, Indian Oil Co., and Unilever.

Several advisers noted that U.S. companies aren't as enthusiastic about the Global Compact as their counterparts in Nordic and Western European countries, which have posted reports on their efforts on a Web site (www.unglobalcompact.org).

"There is a striking increase in the numbers of companies coming from the developing world South Ameria, Africa and Asia," Mr. Doyle said, noting that Mr. Annan had kicked off the effort in front of a mainly European audience.

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