I bought a roll of film the other day. Usually, I purchase film on the basis of convenience and price. This time, I made a point of buying Kodak.
I did this because I had participated in a round table earlier in the week on that holy grail of the women's movement, equal pay for equal work. In the course of preparing for the round table, I learned that Kodak has undertaken a $13 million initiative to implement pay equity in its work force. I believe in supporting companies that behave ethically toward their workers.
I'm also coming to the belief that these self-generated reforms may be the best hope for closing the wage gap between men and women in the private sector. Deloitte & Touche, the giant accounting firm, was among the first major corporations to undertake a vigorous, company-wide program to promote women to partnerships. It wanted to retain talented women and it wanted women partners who could work with top-ranked women in client companies. It was serious enough about its intentions that it retained former secretary of labor Lynn Martin to oversee its effort.
Martin had a different set of challenges when Mitsubishi, the Japanese-owned car manufacturer, undertook a company-wide effort to achieve gender equity in its American manufacturing operations after an explosive sexual harassment scandal made it a potential boycott target. Mitsubishi also hired Martin and she went to Japan to make sure she had the backing of the company's top management. That reform effort was so comprehensive and so well received that Mitsubishi was able to sidestep a catastrophe in the North American market.
Women earned about 76 percent of what men earned in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That translates into median weekly earnings for women working full time of $456 compared with $598 for men, a difference of $7,384 a year -- a sum that could go a long way toward a year's education at a public university for a child. Women under the age of 25 earn 91 percent of what men their age earn, but they start slipping behind in their thirties. By the time women are in the 45-to-54 age group, they are earning 70.5 percent of what men earn, and that drops to 68.2 percent among women age 55 to 64.
One of the presenters at the round table, which took place at the International Women's Forum global conference, was Sakiko Fukada-Parr, director of the Human Development Report for the United Nations Development Program. She said the gender gaps in education and training between men and women are closing in almost all areas of the world, but the wage gap is not. Women in Australia and Denmark are at the top of the scale, earning 85 percent of what men earn; women in Japan earn 50 percent. She also said that international discussions of pay equity need to be expanded to include safe working conditions, and proposed what she called an "ethical trading initiative" in which products would be branded as being manufactured by companies that provide equal pay to female workers. Companies that are not using child labor are already labeling their products to this effect.
"The name of the company is the one thing that must remain unsullied, given a global economy," says Irene Natividad, who put together the round table and who has been running work force studies comparing the United States, Japan and the Philippines for the past three years. "So a strategy for addressing equal pay given this scenario is to have people buy labels that are clean. It's a great idea. One of the things I've been looking at is the pay scales of the multinationals that say the pay scales are market driven. Are they really fair? We can no longer look at wage gap in the home company. We need to look at it across borders."
The torrent of bad publicity that Kmart received after revelations that one of its clothing lines was being produced in Latin American sweatshops has caused other stores to set base standards for their subcontractor, Natividad points out. "They can no longer be blind to labor practices of those who produce their goods." Filipino women working in their home country for American-based manufacturers are paid "probably higher than what would be paid by a Philippine-based company, but that is far less than what you would pay somebody in Kansas," she said.
"Labor has become an international commodity. What you have happening is a race to the bottom. Philippine laborers tend to lose out to Bangladesh laborers who are paid less. The people involved in production work tend to be women and children. The International Labor Organization of U.N. is starting to look at pay practices and trying to pass resolutions establishing minimum guidelines. In my view, however, in the global economy, governments are not the powerful implementers of change. It will be the private sector."
Multinationals have seen what happened to Mitsubishi and Kmart, and much earlier, they saw the Nestle boycott. There's real leverage here. Natividad says these companies will want to keep their brand names "pure and marketable and viable and not tinged with scandal. I believe the best way for women advocates to be effective in the future is to approach every issue globally and to find international partners and to have genuine dialogue with private sector as to how they could be better."
Multinationals have seen labor scandals cause enormous damage to their reputations and bottom lines. They have also seen multinationals undertake self-generated reforms that made them leaders in the workplace, with tons of favorable publicity. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr's idea for labeling products drew lots of nods of approval at a forum of some 500 women leaders. I know I'd be much more likely to buy a garment that bore a label committing its maker to pay equity than a garment that did not. It's my Kodak way of thinking.