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Authors: "True cost of [dignified] labour must be worker-defined."

Unique team of academics and Worker-driven Social Responsibility practitioners pens extended letter to the editor of the peer-reviewed scientific and technology research journal, Nature.com, calls for researchers studying the "True Cost Accounting" of "decent" labor systems to "lend their eyes and ears to the worker communities already creating solutions" to gain a real understanding of the human cost of exploitation and the economic value of eliminating longstanding abuses and elevating working conditions in corporate supply chains...

Authors: "Two distinct but related programs in the USA [the Fair Food Program and the Milk With Dignity Program] have demonstrated that it is possible to end longstanding abuses, ranging from forced labour to sexual harassment and assault; improve health and safety; raise wages; ensure decent housing; provide protection from employer intimidation and retaliation; and holistically elevate the decency of work."

How do you put a value on the elimination of rape in the workplace?

That is the question facing economists and other academic researchers attempting to apply the "True Cost Accounting" framework to the food industry, and to the unprecedented gains achieved by the Fair Food Program, the Milk With Dignity Program and other Worker-driven Social Responsibility initiatives in corporate supply chains.  True Cost Accounting is defined as:

... a new type of bookkeeping that does not just look at the usual financial values within a company, but also calculates the impacts on natural and social capital; or said differently, it calculates the impacts on the natural and social environment in which the company operates. These impacts are calculated in monetary terms, so the amounts can be incorporated in the True Cost books. The "hidden costs" of production, which were externalised in the old system, are made visible and internalised.

While most costs of any given corporation's, or economic sector's, business operations are relatively straightforward to calculate, others -- including those typical of abuses hidden in the farm labor economy for decades, such as widespread forced labor, sexual harassment and assault, and physical violence -- are far thornier to assess and have never been adequately accounted for in traditional economic analyses of our modern food production and distribution economy.  The ignorance of those costs -- willful or otherwise -- has contributed to the continued exploitation of workers at the base of corporate supply chains in the food industry for generations, as the true costs of planting, growing, harvesting, and transporting food have landed on the shoulders of those least able to bear them (and least able to shed them onto others in the supply chain): low-wage farmworkers.  

In other, simpler terms... Farmworkers across the US agricultural industry -- and to an even greater extent, farm laborers in poorer countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti -- have been beaten, raped, and robbed at work for generations, while economists studying the industries in which they work, and investors and corporations deriving billions in profits from their labor, have turned a blind eye to their exploitation.

Until now.  

In a powerful letter to the editor of the respected science and technology journal Nature.com, a unique group of academics and Worker-driven Social Responsibility practitioners joined forces to challenge True Cost Accounting researchers to take heed of the groundbreaking work of the Fair Food Program in the produce industry, the Milk With Dignity Program in the dairy industry, and other WSR initiatives; to study their success in eliminating longstanding abuses such as sexual assault and forced labor; and to incorporate the horrible costs of those practices, and the immense value of real human rights compliance, into their analyses of the food industry.  

 

The letter itself stretches across two full pages of the journal and includes a never-seen-before graphic (above) detailing the flow of financial resources, worker voice, and market influences that drive the CIW's Fair Food Program and its unique success.   It begins with a broad description of the problem of current accounting practices and the authors suggested solution:

To the Editor: Amidst the expanded use of true cost accounting (TCA) frameworks by industry, government, and other stakeholders in the food sector, the true cost of labour -- of decent work -- remains largely absent...  We propose that TCA could learn from two worker-driven success cases in the USA, which offer market solutions and demonstrate that a cost and value redistribution throughout food supply chains has mutually benefitted each node and raised labour standards to levels supported by workers...

The letter continues with a critique of the standard "Multi-stakeholder Initiative" model of corporate social responsibility:

... The recent increase in top-down multi-stakeholder (MSI) certifications offers a warning about fairer prices mechanisms for social impact outcomes.  MSIs often suffer from weak accountability, with benefits accrued primarily by consumer brands or retailers.  While some effectively provide benefit to communities and farmers at the origin, evidence suggests MSIs show mixed or no impact for workers and struggle to challenge the underlying power structures that perpetuate indecent conditions...

The authors then turn to the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model and the opportunities it provides for researchers to get a handle on the true cost of indecent labor conditions and the value of human rights compliance:

"Two distinct but related programs in the USA [the Fair Food Program and the Milk With Dignity Program] have demonstrated that it is possible to end longstanding abuses, ranging from forced labour to sexual harassment and assault; improve health and safety; raise wages; ensure decent housing; provide protection from employer intimidation and retaliation; and holistically elevate the decency of work...  

... On the basis of lessons from those programs, we suggest that TCA analyses assess five core components evident in WSR, which structurally incentive decent work, distribute benefits throughout supply chain nodes and lay the groundwork for accurate TCA of labour.  These include assessing the degree to which 1) workers are centered in program design and implementation, 2) corporations financially incentivize labour rights compliance among suppliers, 3) labour rights monitoring and enforcement is swift, rigorous and worker-informed, 4) buyer-worker agreements are legally binding and enforceable, and 5) economic consequences reward good actors and penalize suppliers where abuse occurs. 

The letter concludes:

No holistic TCA of food is complete without decent labour, with its broad spillover effects on human health and community welfare. Those deterred by the complexities of pricing and implementing decent labour systems should heed the WSR examples of the FFP and MD and lend their eyes and ears to the worker communities already creating solutions."

It is a remarkable, if complex, analysis of an important, emerging field dedicated to accurately measuring real social change.  You can go here to read the letter in its entirety

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