Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 8, 2012

The blood on Alice Tepper Marlin’s hands

Filed under: Asia,workers — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

In the second and concluding article on sweatshop safety prompted by the Tazreen disaster in Bangladesh on November 24th, the New York Times focused on the nonprofit organization founded by Alice Tepper Marlin that gave Ali Enterprises in Karachi a clean bill of health. Just two months before the Tazreen fire that resulted in the death of 112 workers, Ali Enterprises was the scene of another and more devastating version of the latter-day Triangle Shirtwaist disasters wrought by corporate greed:

Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors and raising questions about the woeful lack of regulation in a vital sector of Pakistan’s faltering economy.

It was Pakistan’s worst industrial accident, officials said, and it came just hours after another fire, at a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore, had killed at least 25.

Flames and smoke swept the cramped textile factory in Baldia Town, a northwestern industrial suburb, creating panic among the hundreds of poorly paid workers who had been making undergarments and plastic tools.

They had few options of escape — every exit but one had been locked, officials said, and the windows were mostly barred. In desperation, some flung themselves from the top floors of the four-story building, sustaining serious injuries or worse, witnesses said. But many others failed to make it that far, trapped by an inferno that advanced mercilessly through a building that officials later described as a death trap.

–NY Times, September 12, 2012

The brothers who owned Ali Enterprises are now awaiting trial for murder. They claim that they are innocent since the factory had gotten a stamp of approval from Alice Tepper Marlin:

Despite survivors’ accounts of locked emergency exits and barred windows that prevented workers from leaping to safety, the Bhailas’ lawyer says their SA8000 certificate, issued under the auspices of Social Accountability International, a respected nonprofit organization based in New York, proves they were running a model business.

The certificate that Ali Enterprises boasts about is considered the most prestigious in the industry. It is the creation of Alice Tepper Marlin, a Wellesley College graduate and former Wall Street analyst who, after starting an activist group in 1969 to push for greater corporate responsibility, eventually settled on trying to make the world’s sweatshops less horrid.

The problem is that the SA8000 certificate is awarded after local subcontractors have had a look at the factory, in many instances serving as a rubber stamp for unsafe conditions. Recently UNI Global Union, a grouping of 900 labor unions, quit the board of Marlin’s outfit to protest its ineffectiveness. According to Khalid Nadvi, an expert on monitoring at the University of Manchester in England, certification systems like the SA8000, said, are “very patchy and in many cases totally ineffective.” He added, “Factories often know when the inspectors are coming. You have workers being coached what to say. There may be two sets of books.”

Buried within the article is a quote from Marlin that explains her differences with people like Khalid Nadvi and the labor movement:

Mr. Nadvi recommended that the voluntary monitoring system be replaced by a government-run system developed in consultation with industry and the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency.

But Ms. Tepper Marlin warned that jettisoning certification programs could cause an exodus of apparel orders and jobs from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“This type of trade and development has played an important role in bringing people out of poverty,” she said. “Do we really want to say that we should move away from it because there are some factories with problems?”

You know what I’d like? To see Alice Tepper Marlin and her “power couple” husband John Tepper Marlin, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School, put in one of those locked-door sweatshops and see an “accidental” fire burn their sorry bodies into a pile of smoking ashes.

The Marlins are superstars of the liberal left going back for decades. Here’s a profile on them from 2008:

The Tepper Marlins are, in many respects, old-line Kennedy-era liberals, from blueblood backgrounds, steeped in sixties ideals, with Harvard and Wellesley, Wall Street and City Hall prominent on their impressive resumés. Yet just as they eschew the obstreperous, vein-popping Type A personas you might expect from such a pair of intellectual power brokers, they’ve also avoided becoming relics of a bygone era. Instead, they’ve evolved, adapting their careers to changing trends, responding to the events of the times.

Alice is acknowledged as the architect of corporate social responsibility in America. “She invented the field, which is now conventional wisdom and very hot,” says John, who cheerfully admits to being the second most famous person in the family.

What the Tepper Marlins represent is the ability of the ruling class to create the illusion of reform through nonprofits and NGO’s that use all sorts of progressive rhetoric reminiscent in many ways of Obama’s campaign speeches. For example, if you go to the website of Social Accountability International (SAI), you will see it described as “a non-governmental, multi-stakeholder organization whose mission is to advance the human rights of workers around the world. It partners to advance the human rights of workers and to eliminate sweatshops by promoting ethical working conditions, labor rights, corporate social responsibility and social dialogue.”

But if you go to the SAI board of directors page, you’ll see that the emphasis is on corporate rather than social responsibility.

The president of the board is one Tom DeLuca, who was vice president of imports and compliance for Toys “R” Us, a company that was inducted into the Sweatshop Hall of Shame in 2008. Sweatfree Communities detailed how they earned the award:

 According to the National Labor Committee, Guangzhou Vanguard Water Sport Products Company Ltd in Guangzhou, China produces swim gear and sporting goods for its major clients Speedo, Toys ‘R’ Us, and the giant French retailer Carrefour. Workers’ routine shift is 14 ½ hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., seven days a week. Workers report going for months at a time without a single day off. One worker, forced to toil a 23-hour shift at a compression molding machine, shed tears as he described how exhausted he was, and terrified that his hands would be crushed by the relentless motion of the machine if he slowed down for even a second.

You also have one Don Henkle, who is Gap Inc.’s Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility. “In this capacity, he heads a team of over 90 employees worldwide, responsible for the company’s social responsibility efforts improving working conditions in garment factories.”

Since many of the people who buy clothes at the Gap are young students tuned in to the evils of sweatshops, Gap Inc. has orchestrated an ambitious PR campaign to sell the public that it is different from the typical scumbag multinational. Somehow, the campaign has yet to meet the advertised goals, by the corporation’s own admission:

Between 25 percent and 50 percent of the inspected factories supplying Gap from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean paid their workers below the minimum wage at some point last year. Between 10 and 25 percent of the factories in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and South America shortchanged their workers, the report said.

Now that’s not the minimum wage in the U.S. but the minimum wage in some hellish country like Honduras.

Another board member is Dana Chasin, a lawyer who used to be on the staff of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler. Heard of them? I hadn’t myself but a bit of investigation revealed that the training he got there served him well as overseer of SAI policy:

NY Times, March 3, 1992
U.S. Moves to Freeze Assets Of Law Firm for S.& L. Role

The Federal Government sued a leading New York law firm and its former managing partner for $275 million today and moved to freeze their assets for their role in representing Charles H. Keating Jr., the convicted savings and loan executive.

The lawsuit is the largest ever to be brought by the Government against an adviser to a failed saving institution. It is the first time the authorities, who are stepping up their prosecution of lawyers and accountants linked to the savings and loan scandal, have tried to freeze a firm’s assets before going to trial.

Throughout the 1980’s, the firm, Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, and its managing partner, Peter M. Fishbein, represented Mr. Keating, the founder of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, who was convicted of fraud in one of the costliest of savings failures.

In their lawsuit filed today in an administrative court, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Justice Department contend that Mr. Fishbein and other lawyers at Kaye, Scholer repeatedly misled thrift examiners by overstating Lincoln’s worth, and engaged in obstructionist tactics that kept the institution open and hemorrhaging for many more months and at a much greater cost than necessary.

The way I see it, if you are setting up a nonprofit whose goal is to protect Walmart’s profits, who else would you put on the board of directors except someone who worked for a law firm that helped pull off one of the most massive bankster crimes in American history. Who would you expect them to invite? Ralph Nader? Don’t be an idiot.

With credentials equaling Dana Chasin’s, there’s Nicholas Milowski, an audit manager for KPMG, one of the country’s leading accounting firms. Since most of you are aware that outfits like Arthur Anderson (put out of business for its role in facilitating Enron’s crimes) exist mostly to help their clients evade regulations and oversight, it should not come as any surprise to learn that KPMG was a bunch of crooks. From Wikipedia:

The KPMG tax shelter fraud scandal involves allegedly illegal U.S. tax shelters by KPMG that were exposed beginning in 2003. In early 2005, the United States member firm of KPMG International, KPMG LLP, was accused by the United States Department of Justice of fraud in marketing abusive tax shelters.

Under a deferred prosecution agreement, KPMG LLP admitted criminal wrongdoing in creating fraudulent tax shelters to help wealthy clients dodge $2.5 billion in taxes and agreed to pay $456 million in penalties. KPMG LLP will not face criminal prosecution as long as it complies with the terms of its agreement with the government. On January 3, 2007, the criminal conspiracy charges against KPMG were dropped. However, Federal Attorney Michael J. Garcia stated that the charges could be reinstated if KPMG does not continue to submit to continued monitorship through September 2008.

In 2003, whistleblower Michael Hamersley testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and assisted the investigations of U.S. Senate Homeland Security Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The subcommittee’s report (S. Rept. 109-54) detailed the misconduct.

On 29 August 2005, nine individuals, including six former KPMG partners and the former deputy chairman of the firm, were criminally indicted in relation to the multi-billion dollar criminal tax fraud conspiracy.

If you want to see how truly outrageous these people can be, you have to go to the board of advisers page that is broken down into three groups, including one for business. In this group you can find Manuel Rodriguez and George Jaksch from Chiquita Brands International, formerly known as United Fruit Company. If I were to spell out all of Chiquita/United Fruit’s misdeeds, it would take me hundreds of pages. Of course, a good place to start is Stephen Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger’s “Bitter Fruit”, a book that indicts the multinational for its role in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and causing decades of near-genocidal suffering. You really have to wonder how shameless Alice Tepper Marlin was in lining up these bastards. I guess it was her way of telling the big bourgeoisie that she could be relied on to protect their vital interests, like Kerberos the three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell.

Got the picture? The SAI boards are filled with characters who, to put it in the immortal words of Woody Guthrie, will “rob you with a fountain pen”. Now if it was just a question of robbing a worker of a living wage or the American taxpayer of their hard-earned savings, it would be bad enough. But we are talking about hundreds of workers being burned alive–all because fucking SAI was complicit in issuing clean bills of health for factories turning out cheap goods for Walmart.

A couple of people, who I consider good friends, had SAI figured out long ago. Liza Featherstone and Doug Henwood got under Alice Tepper Marlin’s skin for writing a Nation Magazine article in 2001 that questioned the effectiveness of the SA8000 Certificate that gave the Karachi factory the go-ahead to put hundreds of workers’ lives at risk. Miffed at their impudence, Marlin wrote a letter to the Nation stating:

Unfortunately this article, lauding people who fight to improve the plight of workers, misrepresents a code of conduct with the same goals and an effective implementation record: SA8000, the Social Accountability International standard for decent working conditions, and its independent verification system. This information is readily available on SAI’s website, www.sa-intl.org.

I include Doug and Liza’s reply in all its glory:

New York City

Nowhere do we say that SAI is “led by multinationals”; we quote an outside observer who calls it a “PR tool for multinationals,” a characterization repeated by many sources. Watching Alice Tepper Marlin fawn over a Toys ‘R’ Us exec at the SAI conference this past December lent considerable credence to this view. On the advisory board, business members outnumber labor members by more than two to one (not counting the New York City comptroller, who manages one of the world’s largest stock portfolios).

Inspections every six months sounds reassuring, but scheduled at predictable intervals and announced in advance, they’re unlikely to expose abuses. Snap visits would be much more effective. We’re happy to hear that the offending factory eventually lost its certification, but it’s troubling that it got approved in the first place; auditors are supposed to see through managers’ attempts at bamboozlement. SAI’s auditor on the scene, Det Norske Veritas, told the South China Morning Post that it’s impossible to do reliable audits in China: “The factories always manage to find a way around the auditors.” We’re also happy SAI is broadly trying to improve the lot of workers in China, but certifying factories there implies that they meet the criteria of free association in SAI’s high-minded code, which they clearly do not. We don’t see how “parallel means,” whatever they are (and they sound like company unions), could possibly be a substitute for independent organizing.

As for Tepper Marlin’s “economic argument,” we’re always amused when NGO directors suggest they know more about running businesses than managers. If profits are fatter when workers are well paid and well fed, why are there so many miserably exploited people in the world? Businesses pay higher wages only when they’re forced to.




  1. “You know what I’d like? To see Alice Tepper Marlin and her “power couple” husband John Tepper Marlin, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School, put in one of those locked-door sweatshops and see an “accidental” fire burn their sorry bodies into a pile of smoking ashes.” — Really. So I go ahead and read the article and run into this. I am a bleeding heart and literally cried when I read about this fire. I guess I just have to get past style and concentrate on the facts here. There does look like some great research here and am interested in mounting a campaign to further expose the exploitation of these workers. All workers have the right to a safe workplace, whether the live in this country or in another. I am a US citizen, but really am a citizen of the world. regards, robert

    Comment by robert kolbe — December 8, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

  2. One of your best posts, very enlightening and much appreciated.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 8, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

  3. When you see the word “stakeholders,” you know you are dealing with bamboozlers. All sorts of once upon a time radicals/progressives/left liberals do indeed move with the times. Delivering good to the wretched of the earth without challenging power seems to be the way to go now. All the good liberals and NGOs go to Haiti to do good (like the wretched Bill Clinton). But only the Cubans do the people of Haiti any good.

    Comment by michael yates — December 9, 2012 @ 12:04 am

  4. When I was a grad student in Berkeley, we had an extra bedroom in our small house that we rented out to someone who was Alice’s cousin or brother for a few months in 1970. I forget which. We did not feel very good about each other, but I was impressed by his association with someone who seemed to be doing good corporate work. Little did I know at the time.

    Comment by mperelman — December 9, 2012 @ 2:10 am

  5. Great piece. From the same New York Times article:

    “This type of trade and development has played an important role in bringing people out of poverty,” [Tepper Marlin] said. “Do we really want to say that we should move away from it because there are some factories with problems?”

    Clearly a reader of Tom Friedman.

    Behind closed doors, these are the same folks who likely say smug things like, “You can’t get rid of capitalism.” Sadly their ideology is just a defense of their own self-interest. A way to preserve their little NGO fiefdom.

    Comment by Aaron — December 12, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

  6. I have just discovered your website and this article. I would like only to say that no Code of conduct, no social stanrd and no social label (no more a Social standard like SA8000) is able to replace the duty of a company to comply with the local labor law and other local regulations! An audit is only a snapshot of a situation. An audit is based, unfortunately, on sampling. An audit is sometimes biased by the top management of the company. An audit could be, sometimes, not reliable because the auditors and/or the certification bodies are choosing their own interest… making business instead to perform properly their duty as a certification body.
    Is the SA8000 weknes or responsible of all these fires and others results of breaches of the local laws by companies which had burnt or collapsed?
    In our western countries, our national or local laws comply prefectly whith the international requirements…and when there are offenders or criminals, who is guilty? The Law? the ones in charge to enforce the legal texts? or criminal themselves?
    It seems to easy to claim against SAI and Alice TEPPER MARLIN…. they did something very well appreciate by markets… SA8000 standard and Social certification. For many companies, mainly located in Low Cost Countries, SA8000 brought a basic Human Resources policy., and brought components to increase, very often (in companies I had assessed or supported to become socially responsible and compliant for a long period – since 207) Respect of the workers had been increased and after that impossible for them to turn back towards old managing fashion without destroying their brand image and confidence from their major client.
    Instead to claim, what are your proposals to improve implementation by companies of their own Local laws?
    Don’t forget that SA8000 certification process is a voluntary process!
    For additionnal comment, you can contact me directly: glb@ifme.org

    Comment by Gabriel LEVY-BENCHETON — June 30, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

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