Standards without enforcement are nothing more than empty promises to workers, consumers alike…


In social change, as in sports, it’s not what you say you’re going to do that counts, it’s how well you actually do it…

Please indulge us, for a moment, in an extended analogy.   

Every four years countries around the globe send their best athletes to compete in the summer Olympic games.  And every four years, for two brief weeks the term “degree of difficulty” makes its way back into our collective consciousness, as divers and gymnasts compete to see who can pull off the most challenging routine and take home the gold.  

The Collins English Dictionary defines “degree of difficulty” as:

A rating which reflects the difficulty of the manoeuvre or action an athlete is attempting to perform in sports such as gymnastics and diving, and which is factored into the final score.

The degree of difficulty of any given routine is clearly an important factor in determining an athlete’s final score.  It is not, however, the only one.  Ultimately, the execution of a dive or a gymnast’s routine matters even more than the degree of difficulty, as a highly challenging routine performed poorly will score lower than a less challenging one performed to perfection.  

In short, a simple equation for scoring in diving or gymnastics could be expressed as:

Score = Degree of Difficulty x Execution

According to this formula, no matter how difficult the maneuver, if the diver fails to execute it, the score will be low and the effort a failure.  When it comes to the Olympics, in the final analysis it’s not what you claim you are going to do that matters, it’s how well you do it.  Execution is everything.

Change = Standards x Enforcement

Encuentro_2015_Wendys_Publix_1021_sm.jpgIn the field of social responsibility, the factors may be different from diving or gymnastics, but the same formula holds. 

When it comes to social responsibility, the standards claimed by any given program — be they a corporation’s self-proclaimed “robust code of conduct” or an NGO’s professed “high bar” human rights standards — are equivalent to the degree of difficulty of an Olympic athlete’s routine.  They are what the program hopes to do.  But standards alone are far from dispositive of the program’s actual ability to bring about measurable, sustainable change.

To complete the parallel, in the field of social responsibility, enforcement is the analog to the athlete’s execution.  Without enforcement — without real mechanisms for worker-driven monitoring and meaningful consequences for violations of the program’s standards — there will be no change in the lives of the workers whose rights are in question, and the program will be a failure, no matter how robust or high bar its code of conduct might be.  

In other words:

Change = Standards x Enforcement

According to this formula, if there is no real enforcement (i.e., if the value of enforcement is zero or close to zero), real change is impossible.  In the final analysis, enforcement is everything.

The stuff enforcement is made of…

 “Enforcement obsessed” is a term of endearment we use in Immokalee to describe the Fair Food Program.  By now, the essential elements of enforcement in the Fair Food Program are widely-known.  From the CIW’s recent remarks in Geneva at the United Nations’ Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights:

A Fair Food Standards Council auditor interviews a worker last season in the fields.

… The Fair Food Program, established now in over 90% of Florida’s tomato industry, and in the process of expanding to farms in seven states and two new crops this fall, provides effective remedy for farmworkers through a unique combination of mechanisms, including:

  1. A worker-drafted code of conduct, including prohibition of the particular abusive practices that workers experience in their workplace that are not covered by existing law and not known by anyone outside the industry;
  2. Worker-to-worker education on the rights under the code, so that workers can be the informed, frontline monitors of their own rights;
  3. A 24-hr complaint line for the investigation and resolution of complaints, so that the abuses that workers identify can be quickly and effectively addressed;
  4. In-depth audits on participating farms, to complement the education and complaint processes and uncover abuses workers may not be able to see;
  5. Market consequences for human rights violations established in binding legal agreements between the CIW and the brands, whereby companies like (Compass Group) agree to purchase produce only from growers who are in good standing with the Fair Food Program, as determined by the Fair Food Program.

In concert, these mechanisms make enforcement possible in the Fair Food Program, enforcement that is 1) driven by the workers themselves — the very humans whose human rights are in question, and so the stakeholders with the most compelling and abiding interest in seeing those rights protected – and 2) backed by market-based consequences, so that employers know that the failure to comply will result in the swift and certain loss of sales, as is the case with other standards that the market truly cares about, such as those related to food safety.

Without these multiple and redundant mechanisms — redundant in that workers receive education on their rights both at the time of hire and later in worker-to-worker educational session on the farm, for one example, and are able to expose violations both through the complaint process and in interviews with auditors, for another — monitoring would be piecemeal at best.  And without the market consequences built into the FFP through the CIW’s legally-binding Fair Food agreements with retailers, the correction of violations identified through the multiple layers of monitoring would not be possible.  Those agreements leave nothing to the goodwill of either the Participating Buyers nor the Participating Growers.  In short, compliance with the Fair Food Program’s standards is not voluntary, it is mandatory.

“Respect for human rights…must be made mandatory”

The CIW is not alone in its analysis that rigorous enforcement backed by legally-binding commitments is the only real path to human rights protection.

Just last week, no less an expert on the subject than Puvan Selvanathan, a member of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights since 2011,  tendered his resignation from the Working Group to take up a UN staff position.  Before doing so, however, he published an open letter to UN Human Rights Council President, Joachim Rücker, in which he called for a legally-binding treaty on business and human rights.  Here is an excerpt from that letter:

… I joined the Working Group directly from the ‘C-suite’ of an emerging market multinational company. I have led firms in various industry sectors and operated within several cultural environments. I have come to understand that businesses are machines designed to do only certain things and will always strive to do them as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. The loudest calls within a company for higher goals are distant echoes if even a whisper for profit exists. I am deeply wary of CEOs who claim to be guided by a moral compass because they ultimately only navigate waters their shareholders chart.

Excellency, I suggest that if states wish for businesses to respect human rights then what that constitutes must be made mandatory. Otherwise it is just voluntary. Legally required standards compel compliance in business operations to a meticulous degree. Business respects boundaries and business craves clarity. Companies are our own social creations and reflect our own values. They are defined by the rules that we choose to lay down. We hope they create wealth, drive economies and are not ‘evil’. But if they are because there are no rules or consequences, then we are responsible.

Voluntary compliance with social responsibility standards has brought us years of factory fires in Bangladesh, forced labor in Florida, rampant child labor and sexual assault in Mexico, and murder and slavery in the Thai seafood industry.  By almost any measure, social responsibility in the 20th century — like a horribly executed dive with a high degree of difficulty — was a failure.   

The battle for the soul of social responsibility in the 21st century has been joined.  As Mr. Selvanathan writes, now is the time to demand nothing less than full and mandatory compliance backed by real and meaningful market consequences.  Any program — be it corporate-led or NGO-driven — without strict enforcement mechanisms can no longer be taken seriously.  Instead, worker-driven enforcement, like that at the heart of the Fair Food Program, must be the model if we are to have any real hope of ending decades of worker abuse and exploitation in corporate supply chains.

Anything less will just perpetuate a sad history of empty promises.