Alice Tepper Marlin

Healthy Working Conditions

Recorded: November 8, 2013

How are International worker rights related to health of the environment as well as occupational health and safety? Human rights champion and president of Social Accountability International (SAI) explains how regulations like SAI 8000 protects workers from exploitation.

Ms. Tepper Marlin serves as President and CEO of Social Accountability International (SAI), a standard-setting organization for improving workplaces and communities head-quartered in New York City. She founded SAI in 1997. SAI provides substantial capacity building services for its SA8000 standard, which is designed by a multi-stakeholder Advisory Board to assure decent workplaces and excellent human resource management worldwide. SA8000 is based on United Nations and ILO Conventions and Declarations, and on the ISO management systems. SAI contracts with Social Accountability Accreditation Services (SAAS) to license qualified organizations to verify compliance with the SA8000 standard.

Alice earned her B.A. in Economics from Wellesley College and also studied at the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She started her career as a Securities Analyst and Labor Economist at Burnham and Company, and as the editor of an international tax journal at the International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation in the Netherlands. She designed and managed the first social investment portfolio management services in 1968. She founded the Council on Economic Priorities in 1969, and served as President and CEO for 33 years. CEP pioneered the social investment field and regularly published the best selling consumer guide, “Shopping for a Better World.”

Ms. Tepper Marlin has been a frequent public speaker on corporate accountability for three decades. She is also Citi Distinguished Fellow in Ethics and Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business where she also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Markets, Ethics & Law program. Additionally, Alice is a Faculty Member at Wellesley College’s Madeline Albright Institute for Global Affairs.

Alice Tepper Marlin:    More and more the biggest environmental impacts were happening in Asia and Latin America and Africa, not in the United States so we had to rethink everything we were doing to try to capture what was happening abroad.  The kind of research methods we used in the United States weren’t available in the developing countries, government wasn’t gathering the information, companies didn’t report any of it and so we reconvened as the Social Accountability International (SAI).  We brought in leaders of major companies from around the world, of human rights organizations, development organizations and trade unions.  And with this multi stakeholder group, we designed a standard for decent work; we called it Social Accountability 8000 or SA8000.  It drew from national labor laws, from international conventions developed by the United Nations and signed onto by countries all around the world, from the Conventions of the International Labor Organization and management system from the ISO system that says “How can you assure that these good conditions are delivered today and tomorrow and consistently, policies, procedures, budgets, assignment of authority, training, communications?”  Today there are about 2 million workers who work in factories or farms or offices that observe the decent work standard SA8000.


Huey Johnson:    One of the real dilemmas of the industrial process has been health.  We’ve developed massive technologies to do, raise food or to make things, whatever and it’s been a real struggle for a long time, a hundred years I suppose to try and alleviate the problems caused to human health by that process.  Have you experience in struggling with the health issue?

Alice Tepper Marlin:    Yeah of course we do because workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, to hugely long work hours, 80, 90 hours a week.  One of the provisions in SA8000 is that even with voluntary overtime; no one should work more than 60 hours a week.  The reason is that if people work more than 60 hours a week, research shows the incident of industrial accidents begin to zoom.  If you move up from 40 hours to 50, not very much difference.  Over 60, people begin to be so tired that they make errors.

Huey Johnson:    Ah.

Alice Tepper Marlin:    They make errors so their hands may slip into equipment that’s going to crush their fingers or even cut off a, cut off a limb.  People fall asleep on the job.  In general, inadequate sleep is increasingly being shown to have all kinds of adverse health effects, even if you’re not working on a production job.  But I think we’re often looking at the two patterns, environmental impact and occupational safety and health.  In some industries, there’s a reasonable but not a huge overlap, so things like working hours always has an overlap.  But when you look at farming, the overlap is almost complete because what is healthy for the environment, the environment has health too, is to farm organically or with minimal pesticide application so that you aerate soil properly so that soil has a chance to reconstitute.  Living organisms thrive inside it and we don’t deplete the power of soil to bring us lots healthy fruits and vegetables.  So these projects where you work with large plantations or factories are often an efficient way to reach large numbers of people with a health message.

Huey Johnson:    Ah, that’s interesting.