When the Sunday funnies get real…

Earlier this month, the popular comic strip Non Sequitur provided an unexpected, but deeply incisive, critique of corporate social responsibility.

 

The CSR model stops at solving the problem it was intended to solve — public relations crises — for the actors it was intended to serve, the global brands. 

The WSR model, on the other hand, doesn’t stop until it addresses, and ultimately prevents, the human rights violations at the root of the public relations crises.  That is because WSR is designed by the very workers whose rights are in question, and is intended to end the abuse, poverty, and violence those workers face.

The cartoon at the top of this post appeared earlier this month in Sunday comic pages across the country, sharing that hallowed newspaper real estate with other reader favorites, from Peanuts to Zits.  And while the funny pages are not usually the place we turn for trenchant socioeconomic analysis, this time the strip “Non Sequitur,” by Wiley Miller, served up a critique so relevant – and chilling – that we couldn’t help but bring it to your attention.  

The cartoon depicts the scene inside a corporate boardroom where company executives are hurriedly reviewing their protocols for response to the imminent loss of life of a contract worker cleaning the corporate headquarters’ windows without adequate safety equipment.  The to-do list focuses on the legal and public relations crises facing the company, first and foremost, and contemplates intervention to prevent the accident facing the imperiled worker only after all the company’s interests are adequately protected (and presumably too late to actually prevent the accident in the first place).  With a remarkable economy of words, the strip provides the reader with a surgical examination of the hypocrisy and inhumanity at the heart of the practice known as corporate social responsibility (or CSR), the depth and truth of which are rarely – if ever – found in the news and editorial pages of the same publications that ran the cartoon.

From the Sunday comics to the produce aisle…

The analogy from the Non Sequitur cartoon to the critique behind the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food is obvious.  The window-washer falling from the scaffolding is the farmworker that goes to work every day knowing that she may face everything from pesticide poisoning to sexual violence in the fields, with absolutely no protections in place to prevent those abuses from happening.  And the corporate executives reviewing their protocols are the countless food company representatives over the years who, reading from the same script in response to the Campaign for Fair Food, point to their company’s “robust” code of conduct and “independent” auditors to assure their customers that they have done their due diligence to protect farmworkers in there supply chain from the abuses that constantly arise in their suppliers’ fields. 

To quote the Worker-driven Social Responsibility website on this very issue:

In a shrinking world of increasingly globalized markets, low-wage workers at the base of corporate supply chains remain isolated, vulnerable, exploited and abused…

Workers on a Fair Food Program farm receive training on their rights and mechanisms for redress established under the Code of Conduct.

… Corporations bear responsibility for ensuring that human rights are respected in their suppliers’ operations, but they tend to treat the discovery of abuses in their supply chains as public relations crises to be managed, rather than human rights violations to be remedied.  Seeking to protect their brands from reputational harm, corporations embrace strategies that profess adherence to fundamental human rights standards but offer no effective mechanisms for enforcing those standards.  This approach, known broadly as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is characterized by voluntary commitments, broad standards that mostly mirror local law, ineffective or non-existent monitoring, and the absence of any commitment to or mechanisms for enforcement of the meager standards that do exist. CSR, in effect a form of corporate self-regulation, has failed to address the ongoing human rights crisis in global supply chains in large part because it does not put workers – the very people whose rights are in question and who have the most direct knowledge of the relevant environment – at the center of developing and enforcing solutions to the problem. This failure is evident at all levels of CSR – in its structure, governance, operation and allocation of resources – and it is this fundamental design flaw that makes the failure of these systems inevitable.

For decades, workers in the fields have fallen from the figurative scaffolding depicted in the Non Sequitur strip – suffering everything from slavery to rape, in the case of farmworkers – because food company executives have prioritized public relations over human rights.  If, on the other hand, the corporate executives in the cartoon put calling 911 first – or better yet, only did business with contractors that provided real protections against workplace accidents – they wouldn’t need to deploy the vast array of legal and PR resources at their command.  But that is not the norm, not by a long shot.  

Worker-driven Social Responsibility as the solution…

The Non Sequitur comic is drawn from the perspective of the corporate executives, from inside the corporate boardroom.  But what would happen if the dangers facing the window-washer were addressed not from the perspective of the company, but from that of the worker himself?  Again, from the WSR Network website:

… In recent years, however, this bleak portrait has begun to change.  Both in the US and abroad, workers and their organizations have forged effective solutions that ensure the real, verifiable protection of human rights in corporate supply chains. This new paradigm is known as Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR).  WSR has been tested in some of the most stubbornly exploitative labor environments in the world today – from the agricultural fields of Florida, which were once dubbed “ground zero for modern-day slavery” by federal prosecutors, to the apparel sweatshops of Bangladesh, the locus of some of this century’s most horrific factory fires and building collapses.  In these oppressive environments, WSR has demonstrated its ability to eliminate longstanding abuses and change workers’ lives for the better.

WSR provides a proven new form of power for previously powerless workers to protect and enforce their own rights. These rights can include – according to the circumstances and priorities of the workers driving the program – the right to freedom of association, the right to a safe and healthy work environment (including the right to work free from sexual harassment and sexual violence), and the right to work free of forced labor or violence, among other fundamental rights.

The WSR paradigm is founded on the understanding that, in order to achieve meaningful and lasting improvements, human rights protections in corporate supply chains must be worker-driven, enforcement-focused, and based on legally binding commitments that assign responsibility for improving working conditions to the global corporations at the top of those supply chains.  Several essential features distinguish the WSR approach from the failed CSR model.  Specifically:

  • Worker organizations must be the driving force in the creation, monitoring, and enforcement of programs designed to improve their wages and working conditions;
  • Brands and retailers must sign legally binding agreements with worker organizations, and those agreements must require the brands to provide financial support to their suppliers to help meet the labor standards established by the program, and to stop doing business with suppliers who violate those standards;
  • Monitoring and enforcement mechanisms must be designed to provide workers an effective voice in the protection of their own rights, including extensive worker education on their rights under the program, rigorous workplace inspections that are effectively independent of brand and retailer influence, public disclosure of the names and locations of participating brands and suppliers, and a complaint mechanism that ensures swift and effective action when workers identify abuses.

And the best part about WSR as an alternative to CSR?  It is a classic Win/Win proposition.  

When you treat worker abuse as first and foremost a public relations crisis, as does CSR, you may stop the reputational harm suffered by a company, but you certainly won’t stop the abuse.

With WSR and its proven worker protections, you stop the abuse itself.  And because the abuses are the root cause of the public relations crisis, both the worker and the corporation are protected.  Win/Win.

In conclusion…

In short, the CSR model stops at solving the problem it was intended to solve — public relations crises — for the actors it was intended to serve, the global brands.  The WSR model, on the other hand, doesn’t stop until it addresses, and ultimately prevents, the human rights violations at the root of the public relations crises.  That is because WSR is designed by the very workers whose rights are in question, and is intended to end the abuse, poverty, and violence those workers face.

In other words, the Non Sequitur strip is a perfect depiction of the problem of Corporate Social Responsibility.  

Worker-driven Social Responsibility, in contrast, is a proven solution.  

It is time that the remaining food giants that have yet to join the Fair Food Program stop hiding behind ineffective corporate codes of conduct and step up to the gold standard of human rights protection in the agricultural industry today.  When they realize that it is, in fact, the only proven way to protect their own interests against harm to their brands from human rights crises, they’ll be glad they did.