“The Future of Work” Round Table spotlights Fair Food Program, Worker-driven Social Responsibility model!

Labor rights experts weigh in on worker exploitation in global supply chains and the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model as a proven solution:

“It’s about shifting power, resources, and control… in ways that legally obligate companies to prioritize the needs and rights of workers.  Currently WSR is the only way in global supply chains to do that.”

“The implications… are massive… It is completely replicable, scalable, implementable…”

“…one of the best examples of worker-led labour rights change out there today…”

Earlier this month, Open Democracy, the online hub for a global discussion on democracy and human rights, published the first installment of a long-awaited research project titled, “The Future of Work.”  In an extensive article, Open Democracy pulled together the voices of twelve human rights leaders – hailing from China and India to Great Britain and the United States – for a “Round Table” discussion.  The co-authors of the piece teed up the conversation with this question: “How can workers and their allies shape a better future for work?”

The thoughtful discussion that followed – which began with the basic premise that the corporate social responsibility model has, by and large, failed miserably in protecting the rights of workers in global supply chains – weaved together decades of experience from labor rights experts from around the world.  Participants included ProDESC (a leading NGO at the center of Mexico’s courageous human rights movement), the US-based Solidarity Center, former U.S. Ambassador Lou CdeBaca (whose portfolio within the State Department under the Obama Administration was “to monitor and combat trafficking in persons”), the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network, and of course, the CIW.

Today, we bring you highlights from Round Table discussion, which you can delve into fully over at the Open Democracy website.  We begin with a bit of background:

The Ford Foundation recently conducted an exploration of the changing nature of work globally. Some of the main findings which emerged from this two year project were captured via the publication of a recent report – Quality Work Worldwide – which advanced a number of overlapping strategies for improving protections against labour exploitation and vulnerability, and for enabling workers to more effectively participate in shaping their terms of employment. The report also identified a number of foundational challenges which were undermining the quality of work globally: 1) lack of accountability from companies, 2) global governance gaps, 3) limited action from national governments, and 4) insufficient power and voice for workers.

The round table that starts today expands upon the main findings of this report. While the report provides an important starting point, many additional conversations need to take place in order to advance our understanding of both underlying challenges and potential alternatives. Working together with the Future of Work team at the Ford Foundation, we have invited 12 leading experts to share their thoughts regarding how and why work has changed, and what types of strategies and approaches need to be introduced or expanded in order to effectively promote quality work globally.

In her interview, the CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo covered a lot of ground, from breaking down the false promises of the Corporate Social Responsibility model, to detailing the proven power of the Fair Food Program and the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model for transforming exploitative workplaces around the world.  Here are just a few highlights:

Corporate social responsibility programmes exist to satisfy consumer demand for ethical products. Their primary purpose is to protect the brand by preventing consumers from taking their business somewhere else. They are not meant to and do not succeed in protecting the human rights of workers, or in reducing poverty for workers.

Our campaigns open the eyes of people, but it is only through concerted and conscious consumer demand that these types of programmes can actually be enforced. Companies will only invest in them if consumers actually demand high standards and enforceable programmes…

… The Fair Food Program currently exists only within U.S. agriculture. But the model that it established is replicable, not only in agriculture but in other low wage industries. That’s already proven to be true. There are workers in the Vermont dairy industry who have used the same essential elements to create the Milk With Dignity programme. They have their own enforcement, their own education, their own agreements. On the global scale there is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a worker-driven social responsibility model that combats health and safety threats to textile workers.

We’re looking to bring this model to workers in other places. We know there are just horrific human rights abuses in other countries, that there’s horrific poverty in other countries. There are migrant workers in other countries who are vulnerable in the same ways that we are here. They also have the possibility of creating a WSR-style programme that can harness the power of the market for good. We would like to see this model take root on an international basis as much as possible.

Meanwhile, in addition to adding their own invaluable insights into the roots of poverty, exploitation and abuse experienced by migrant workers across the globe, several other participants lifted up the Fair Food Program and Worker-driven Social Responsibility model as one of the world’s most successful strategies for protecting workers’ human rights:

Emily Kenway, senior advisor on human trafficking and labour exploitation at Focus on Labour Exploitation:  Most of the time when I meet with supermarkets I mention the Fair Food Program, just to see if people have heard of it. They should have, because it is one of the best examples of worker-led labour rights change out there today… 

…We need to implement joint liability frameworks where the top is responsible for creating the conditions for exploitation lower down. They do exist in some sectors in some countries already, but we need to go bigger and to cross boundaries with them. That’s a big ask, and we are far away from it.

In the meantime there are private versions of that, such as the Bangladesh Accord. There you have businesses at the top binding themselves into improving the factories supplying them from halfway around the world. The Fair Food Program is similar. It’s clever because it understands the power dynamics in the supply chain by commercially incentivising tomato farm owners to stay in the program. That gives it teeth. We need many more mechanisms like that, which create joint transnational responsibility even in the absence of a law.

Penelope Kyritsis and Theresa Haas of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network:  WSR is fundamentally about shifting power. It’s about shifting power, resources, and control from the entities at the top to the workers at the bottom in ways that legally obligate companies to prioritise the needs and rights of workers. There is currently a lot of pressure on companies to produce products in ways that are ethical and responsible. It’s something that consumers seem to want and investors seem to want. Fair trade doesn’t do it. Rainforest certification doesn’t do it. Currently WSR is the only way in global supply chains to do that.

Former U.S. Ambassador Lou CdeBaca:  This is one of the reasons why so many of us are interested in Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) instead. It puts the worker a little bit further forward into the issue and it doesn’t depend on the largesse of the company.

Shawna Bader-Blau, Executive Director of the Solidarity Center:  The implications of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh are massive in terms of opening up the realm of the possible for corporate governance. At the same time, in comparison to the size of the garment industry the accord is small. So it’s an effort that we should be, and are, working collectively to try to replicate in different forms. The accord is a negotiated agreement between workers and employers, which is akin to collective bargaining. It is completely replicable, scalable, implementable…

Anannya Bhattacharjee, International Coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance: In the garment industry there is the freedom of association protocol in Indonesia, and there’s the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. These agreements were designed with the participation of labour organisations, they have a process of enforceability, and they bind signatories to certain activities.

We strongly encourage you to take the time to dig into this critically-important project by Open Democracy, which does a fantastic job at identifying the sources of labor exploitation in the 21st century, and lifting up the most promising practices that we can all invest in to address it.  You can read the full Round Table discussion here.