The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

The Union’s ethical problem

The Mancunion looks at whether the Student Union’s ‘Sustainable & Ethical Business Code’ is being followed

By and

Introduction

There’s something funny about the coke served at the Students’ Union.

Not “funny haha”, more “that’s funny; this coke doesn’t taste anything like Coca Cola.”

For those of you who’ve been at Manchester for more than a year, the fact that the coke they serve at the union bar tastes a bit weird won’t be news.

The union hasn’t stocked Coca Cola – or Nestle for that matter – since 2006. And despite a furious debate about the issue last year that saw students’, in achingly stereotypical fashion, evoke John Locke and Naomi Klein, respectively, to support their argument that coke should or should not be sold; it’s still impossible to get a Kit Kat or a Fanta in the union building.

With this debate still fresh in our minds – and armed with the knowledge that the Union’s ‘Sustainable & Ethical Business Code’ (which is used to justify the Coke and Nestle ban) commits it to only having “financial relationships” with companies that “allow unhindered trade union participation of their workforce”; are “free of child, sweatshop, forced and slave labour”; don’t “exacerbate climate change”, and, amongst other things, don’t contribute to the “worsening of lives” – we took a look at some of the products that are either on sale in the building or in use by those that run the Students’ Union. We found a policy not fit for purpose.

This is not to say all or none of these products should be banned, but instead to show the policy as redundant, and highlight potential hypocrisies when telling others to get behind your boycott.

Apple

What’s that in the hand of the Union Exec Member telling me why it’s so important to get involved in student politics?

Why it’s an iPad; purchased by the Union for each member of the exec at the start of this year and manufactured by that warm and cuddly company: Apple.

Surely there’s nothing unethical about them?

Funnily enough there is.

The New York Times reported claims that in January, “Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens.”

The same article goes on to state that “two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77”; before reporting that a Chinese group claimed to have alerted Apple to hazardous conditions in the factory before the blast.

Two weeks earlier, The Telegraph had reported on a mass protest by workers at the Foxconn owned factory in China where Apple products, including iPads, are manufactured. The Telegraph reported that during their demo 150 workers threatened to commit suicide unless their conditions were improved.

Their lives had been “worsened” to the extent that they were threatening not to go on living.

Reports released by Apple in recent months in a bid to fend off some of the bad press have revealed several incidences of child labour at factories manufacturing their products in the Far East.

GlaxoSmithKline

“SCREW GLAXO SMITH KLEIN! They have no place in our unions, or the student movement!” thundered Women’s Officer Tabz O’Brien-Butcher on her twitter account back in October.

Unfortunately for her, it would seem that ‘GLAXO’ do have a place in ‘our union’. In the union shop as it happens. Just next to the bottles of fair-trade cola.

First introduced onto the market more than 80 years ago, Lucozade and Ribena have gone on to become one of the controversial pharmaceutical company’s best-known products.

Earlier this year GSK were fined a massive $3 billion after admitting to bribing doctors in the United States in order to increase drug sales. As well as putting on expenses paid golf and fishing trips for American doctors to attend, the company was also found to have, as The Guardian phrased it, encouraged “the prescription of unsuitable antidepressants to children.”

Starbucks

Starbucks coffee can now be purchased in the Student Union managed Biko café over in North Campus.

In a move vigorously opposed by certain members of last year’s Exec, the company ranked most unethical coffee chain in the UK by Ethical Consumer magazine arrives despite obviously contravening our code. Starbucks have allegedly treated their workers badly and have been accused by Oxfam of blocking Ethiopian attempts to trademark their beans. Though more recently, Starbucks and Ethiopia have finally reached an agreement over property rights.

They also petitioned to a US judge to use in evidence the sexual history of a 16-year-old girl who had taken Starbucks to court over sexual harassment. Still, people expect good coffee, and that includes those working at the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, America’s infamous prison, where Starbucks is also available.

That being said, we’re not quite convinced by the argument of one Exec member last year, which centered on banning the coffee chain because the high calories and caffeine content “worsened the lives” of students.

Cigarettes

Cigarettes perhaps top the list of most evil products in the history of mankind.

In the 20th century tobacco products were responsible for 100 million deaths – more than the Second World War – and it remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in the western world. Is there a producton this planet that “contributes to the worsening of lives” more than cigarettes?

But if you feel smoking is a choice and therefore different to Coca-Cola, then there’s more beneath the surface.

The PAHO (Pan American Health Organisation) accused both Philip Morris cigarettes and British American Tobacco of hiring scientists to create misleading health information and lobbying to prevent developing countries from writing up anti-smoking legislation. UCLA researchers claimed tobacco companies have known since the 1960s of the health risks of cigarettes and deliberately kept the information away from public knowledge. And as recently as 2010 Philip Morris admitted that Kazakh children as young as 10 were rolling up their fags. Human Rights Watch descibed the conditions on the plantations as amounting to “forced labour.”

Cigarettes are in breach of almost every one of our ethical codes of conduct and after a report by The Mancunion last year, the issue was taken to the Audit and Risk Committee. They rejected the request outright, citing the financial damage it would cause. This despite the arguments from Coca-Cola boycott campaigners – including members of the Exec at the time – that money was an irrelevant argument and should play no role in product boycott discussion.

A nice thought, but it’s nonsense. The ethical code was democratically voted in and as the ManchesterSU website says, all products ‘must’ follow these guidelines. Those that voted for the policy are being ignored for financial reasons.

Hershey’s

The advocacy group Global Exchange have a campaign called ‘Raise the Bar’, which raises awareness to their speculative cocoa sourcing. Whilst celebrating Hershey’s recent pledge to commit certified cocoa by 2020, they still campaign against Hershey’s refusal to identify its cocoa suppliers. They’ve had further pressure from the International Labour Rights Forum to reject the use of child labour and embrace fair trade principles.

They’ve even got a shoddy reputation regarding our student comrades.

Last year, union workers marched to support international students who say they were duped into signing up for a ‘cultural exchange’ programme. Far from any kind of cultural exchanges taking place, the foreign students had little contact with Americans and were put to work in unfair conditions at a non-unionised packing and shipping plant.

So the next time you buy Hershey’s Reeses Pieces, bear in mind that it could have been packed and sent by these students.