Why Finland's beloved baby box got a harsh review
New parents love the Finnish baby box. It's sent by the government to moms-to-be and is full of tiny booties and socks, onesies and baby bibs. And the box itself can be baby's first crib.
But a new report issued this month by Finnwatch, a watchdog agency that promotes socially responsible business conduct, adds a different perspective. According to the report, many of the products come from manufacturers that abuse their employees — for example, paying wages two-and-a-half times below the local standard of living or having unsafe working conditions. Finnwatch's past investigations include the working conditions behind palm oil, coffee and cans of tuna fish. "We decided to look into the maternity box because it's an iconic Finnish innovation," says Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch. "Every year when a new box comes out, there are media stories on the products inside and there's a public debate on what looks good and what doesn't; it may sound silly, but the box is a big deal for moms here." Expectant moms in Finland have been receiving free baby boxes from the government since 1938. It started as way to support impoverished families and counteract high infant mortality: to claim the free gift, mothers had to visit a maternity clinic and undergo a medical exam. The lure worked and soon maternity exams became commonplace for moms.
Today, the box is provided to all pregnant moms who enroll to receive them. Goods within the box change every year, but there are typically about 50 different items with an estimated value of $159.
For their investigation, Finnwatch studied the 63 products in the 2018 maternity box. The team reached out to the Finnish companies supplying the products — none of whom were manufacturing the items themselves — and learned where the products were made and if any companies or nonprofits had conducted an audit of labor standards at the factories.
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"We were able to get information on about 40 products," Vartiala says. "Twelve of them had quite serious labor rights issues behind them."
Turquoise trousers, a denim jumpsuit and two white baby caps in the box were tied to a factory in Bangladesh with several issues. Employees received a mere $69 a month while the country's standard of living is considered $177 a month, according to Finnwatch. They also worked up to 15 hours a day and 20 to 25 days in a row without a day off – a violation of the 2006 Bangladesh Labor Act that factory employees will be given one day off a week.
An audit by Sedex, an organization that performs ethical trade inspections worldwide, found that a Pakistani mill had out-of-date fire extinguishers and blocked emergency exits. The mill manufactured gauze diapers for the baby box. Multiple items from China, including a baby book, a toothbrush and colorful onesies, were tied to illegal overtime. Independent auditors not associated with Finnwatch and accredited by Amfori BSCI, an association that monitors working conditions, documented employees with up to 88 hours of overtime a month, violating China's labor law that overtime be capped at 36 hours a month.
Not every one of the items in the box, including a cuddly stuffed elephant that can serve as a toy or blanket, could be traced. Jutta Product, Ltd. and Pyka, Ltd., the two Finnish companies that supplied the products, did not respond to Finnwatch's request for information.
In response to Finnwatch's study, Kela, the government agency that distributes the baby boxes, issued a press release that says "Kela is working to make sure that [the maternity package] is fully compatible with all ethical standards." Items for each box are selected annually through a bidding process that invites companies to submit proposals for the inclusion of their items. According to Kela's website, products are selected for the box "either on the basis of the lowest price or on the basis of the best value."
Since the investigation, Kela has been working with Finnwatch to tighten oversight of the products they select and the working conditions behind them.
"I think there's a lot of [public] disappointment," Vartiala says. "Disappointment that the government is not making sure these products are made ethically."
Finnwatch's recommendations include creating an ethical code of conduct regarding overtime, wages and other employee rights to prevent labor abuse. Companies would commit to the labor standards during Kela's bidding process and sign the code if they win the bid.
Vartiala explains, "So if a company that bids guarantees to pay living wages, they should be given more 'points' to win the bid than a company that doesn't do this."
In an email to NPR, Hannamaija Haiminen, Kela's procurement manager, said, "Right now we are in the middle of tendering process for maternity package 2020 and additional requirements concerning audits for compliance with labour standards were added to the current [bidding] round. Kela will seek further to adopt the recommendations made in the report in the future call for tenders concerning the maternity package."
For Finnish moms with lingering concerns about the ethics behind the baby box, there is another option: take the money. Kela gives pregnant moms the opportunity to choose the box or its cash value instead.
Nadia Whitehead is a freelance journalist and science writer. Her work has appeared in Science, The Washington Post and NPR. Find her on Twitter @NadiaMacias. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.