At the Fair Labor Association (FLA) Board of Directors meeting in February of 2016, Brooklyn Manufacturing (based in San Salvador, El Salvador) became only the second supplier in FLA history – and the first in the Western Hemisphere – to earn accreditation for its social compliance program.
“I don’t think we were aware that we were going to be the first in the Americas,” says Mike Rodgers, general manager at the Brooklyn plant in El Salvador. “To be the first one means we’ve done something that others haven’t tried to do, but at the same time, we didn’t do it for that reason. We did it to make sure that we’re documenting what we’re doing for our workers and show that we’re abiding by the laws and the norms that are established by the international community.”
We asked Mike and his colleagues Patricia Acevedo and Jerry Eckstein to tell us more about their work to achieve accreditation, Brooklyn’s programs to enhance worker well-being, and their next steps to enact their commitment to social responsibility deeper in their own supply chain. (All photos are of operators sewing apparel at Brooklyn's facility.)
FLA: Congratulations on achieving accreditation for Brooklyn Manufacturing’s social compliance program. What does accreditation for Brooklyn’s social compliance program mean for your company?
Brooklyn: Achieving accreditation shows that we value social compliance on par with other aspects of our business, in terms of our commitment and priorities, and in terms of how we present ourselves to customers and to the world. So, in addition to quality, development, service, and competitiveness, our commitment to social compliance is at the forefront. Being accredited by the FLA is the gold standard of compliance, so it’s really important for us to be able to tell our customers, and others, what we have achieved.
FLA: Can you tell us about something the accreditation process taught you about social compliance?
Brooklyn: We came to really appreciate the importance of careful documentation. We’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary in El Salvador this year. From the beginning, I think the founders of the company in the United States were always concerned about their employees, their opportunities, their well-being, but the work to put this commitment into practice was not always documented.
Pursuing FLA accreditation compels you to document everything that you do to take care of your folks, whether it’s the Labor Management Council we have that meets every Monday, whether it’s how we work with the union that we have here, or whatever it might be. So, we’ve come to understand that the documentation is just as important as the action, because what we’ve prepared for the FLA is available to show anybody else who comes for an audit, and overall the availability of documentation increases the transparency within the company.
FLA: Can you say more about the Labor Management Council you mentioned?
Brooklyn: Before we had a union here, we had already started the Labor Management Council, where we have one person from each department or line that meets with senior management, and it’s their chance to bring up issues or concerns that they have. At the same time, senior management can communicate any changes that are coming or anything that may affect the employees. There’s an open door for communication at these meetings – along with suggestions boxes and other channels -- that employees have for sharing any complaints. It helps management learn about any problems they may not have seen, so they can take action.
FLA: How has the adoption of “lean manufacturing” improved conditions for workers at Brooklyn?
Brooklyn: The part we like about lean manufacturing is the empowerment of the people. If you’ve ever seen a sewing factory, where a worker sits in the same place for nine hours a day, and does the exact same operation every day, it’s very boring, very repetitive. With lean manufacturing, a worker has the chance to change from one operation to another. Plus, operators working on lean manufacturing earn more, because we’re asking more of them, asking them to have more skills. From the company side, the benefit is that it’s more productive, with a quicker through-put time, and less work in process.
FLA: Your FLA accreditation report summarizes Brooklyn’s efforts in offering various classes and programs, like the “Mujeres en Fabrica” program. Can you tell us more about the effect these programs have had for Brooklyn’s workers?
Brooklyn: We have received quite a lot of positive feedback on the programs we have instituted to enrich workers’ lives, especially the “Mujeres en Fabrica” program, which is designed to increase self-confidence and self-esteem, strengthen communication skills, and train workers to identify signs of harassment or abuse. One hundred percent of our employees attend the basic 16-hour program, divided into two hours per week, and then 20 percent of workers – just women – have the opportunity to participate in a more advanced 72-hour program.
One of the most powerful testimonials we received was from a woman working at Brooklyn who was struggling with suicidal thoughts and found that the program helped her to believe in herself and reached her at just the right time to help. We have received so many testimonials like this, explaining not only how the program has helped within the factory, but also at home, in people’s lives with their kids, family, and community.
FLA: Can you describe any other social compliance initiatives at Brooklyn that have been particularly well-received?
Brooklyn: One of the issues you face with a plant as big as ours is the dissemination of information. So, to spread awareness of Brooklyn’s adherence to the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct, we took one element every month, and we had a competition where the employees submitted posters showing their understanding of that element. Then, the employees attending the Labor Management Council meetings voted for the winner, who would then receive a money prize the following week. And then we hung up all the posters around the plant because we wanted to be sure that apart from having meetings where the code was explained, that we have reminders in the plant for people to understand what the FLA and Brooklyn Code of Conduct stands for.
It’s amazing the skills you find when you do something like this. Some of our operators are very talented artists, and nobody had any idea until they submitted their posters for the contest.
FLA: How have your buyers responded to your initiatives and to the accreditation of your compliance program?
Brooklyn: Our customers have told us they are very impressed, but at the same time we don’t always see buyer commitment to these initiatives.
For example, there was a conversation we had in the El Salvador plant with one of our buyers, and we were asking them, “What’s important to you?” And they said, “Social compliance, quality performance, on-time delivery, and price,” in that order. So we said, “Which of those is the most important?” And they said, “Price.” And we asked what comes next, and the buyer listed them back, in reverse order, ending with social compliance, which was disappointing. It’s disappointing when we see lip-service to social compliance not followed up with action or real support of the people who are actually doing the work.
Regardless, taking care of our people at Brooklyn is very important to us, and it’s important when introducing ourselves to new customers that we can show them we’ve taken these steps.
FLA: If you have one piece of advice for a similar supplier pursuing accreditation of its social compliance program with the FLA, what would it be?
Brooklyn: Be sure that you’re complying with all the local laws, and once you’ve done that look at the FLA Code of Conduct and be aware of where your standards are in comparison – and then look at your resources to see if you can make it happen.
Here at Brooklyn, at one time, compliance was handled by only two people, an administrative manager and human resources manager. As compliance has evolved, we’ve hired one whole person to focus just on compliance, and then eventually we hired one more because it was too much work. And eventually, you may need resources to make improvements at your plant that maybe other audits haven’t picked up on, but they’ll definitely be noticed when the FLA comes through.
Suppliers need to be willing to make the investment – and it really is an investment, not an expense. The process makes your workplace safer, more secure, and a better place to work, which pays off dividends in fewer accidents, employee morale, and those types of things. But you have to know the type of investment you’re getting into from the start.
FLA: The FLA model encourages continuous improvement for all affiliates. What is Brooklyn’s next step in improving conditions for workers in its supply chain?
Brooklyn: We’ve been working with our deeper-tier suppliers, sharing our and the FLA’s Code of Conduct with them because we want to raise their awareness and understanding of what taking care of their people means, and how to be a reputable supplier for somebody else.
Also, here at Brooklyn, we continue to do what we always do, which is to keep our doors open, listen to our people, meet with leaders of the union to hear their feedback and address or correct any issues we find. And we continue following the high standards that our policies and principles dictate to be the norm here at Brooklyn.