KELLY: Corporate Pregnancy Testing

Sometimes there's hope in the world and I mean the big world, where the globalization of business is proceeding apace. Amid the horror stories of 14-cents-an-hour wages and physical abuse of employees, there are signs things are changing. For the better.Here's one sign: Effective March 1, General Motors has discontinued pre-hire pregnancy testing in its Mexican plants.It's heartening news, because GM with 75,000 employees in Mexico is that nation's largest private employer. And the refusal to hire pregnant women has been standard practice in Mexico for as long as anyone can remember. GM is hoping its move will set a precedent others will follow. And I hope they're right.It makes me want to stand on my chair and give a little cheer. And I find myself unpacking an old, sentimental dream I had tucked away. It's a dream that globalization can be a positive force in the world -- with U.S. companies exporting more civilized American practices, and raising the ethical playing field worldwide. I had come to fear the reverse was true, that the real effect was to lower the playing field here at home. Maybe the tide is turning.So, sit back with your cup of coffee this morning, and listen to how it happened at GM. It may make you smile.The tale began in the summer of 1996, when the Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch completed its survey of sex discrimination in Mexico's maquiladora sector (those plants operating along the U.S./Mexico border). "We got a letter from them about 3 p.m. on Friday, June 28," recalled Walt Ralph, manager of international benefits for GM. "It was the last day before our two-week vacation shutdown, and they wanted a response by Monday."Ralph made a few calls over the weekend, and managed a verbal response that Monday. Then in August, GM issued its official response a one-page defense of the practice of pregnancy testing. It was an earnest but rather stuffy, defensive letter, explaining that Mexico's generous laws allowed women three months paid maternity leave. And in cases where women had been employed less than thirty weeks, the cost of that leave was borne by employers. "If we were to permit the hire of pregnant job applicants," the letter said, "we would attract all of those who are merely seeking employment to obtain maternity benefits." The message was that GM didn't like pregnancy testing, but was forced into it.That was stage one.In stage two, Ralph and others at headquarters became more uncomfortable with the practice. "Several of us concluded we couldn't continue the policy," he said. And the question became how to change it. Issue an edict? Or get folks to agree?They decided on the latter route, and in late January held a meeting with human resource directors in Mexico. Ralph acknowledged to them that the issue may not have seemed a big one in Mexico. "But I told them frankly, gang, from the U.S. perspective, it's an issue." And he posed a simple question: "What do you think in your gut is right?"One fellow eventually popped up and said, yes, we need to change this. "And there was a domino effect around the room," Ralph said. By the end of the meeting, the group had agreed to discontinue pregnancy testing. But they wanted to go further convincing people doing the hiring to give these women a genuinely fair chance. They wanted not only to change policy, but to eliminate "beneath-the-surface" discrimination.They wanted, in short, real change. And they wanted it immediately. Most didn't wait until the March 1 deadline.Is GM worried it'll attract hordes of job-seeking pregnant women? "Not really," Ralph said. "Quite frankly, that was a rationale. We do expect to get more than 'our share.' But the hope is that a sufficient number of companies will follow our lead, so it will become a non-issue."I say, hats off to the folks at GM. Hats off to Human Rights Watch for prodding their consciences. And here's hoping other American companies in Mexico are listening. Maybe this globalization stuff isn't so bad after all.Marjorie Kelly is cofounder and editor of Business Ethics, a newsletter for socially responsible business. You can call with questions or opinions on her Star Tribune message line at 612/673-9059; fax 612/962-4706; e-mail; or write to Business Ethics, 52 S. 10th St., Suite 110, Minneapolis, MN 55403.

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