In his own words: Read Steve Hitov’s acceptance speech at ICAR’s Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award ceremony…

The CIW’s Steve Hitov speaks at last week’s Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award ceremony in Washington, DC. Hitov was the inaugural recipient of the Skinner award, given by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) at its annual meeting in memory of the longtime advocate, advisor and leader in the fight for human rights in corporate supply chains.

Hitov: “I would challenge each of you to ask this simple question.  Will what I am about to do create meaningful and sustainable change, or will it just be words on paper?  If it won’t improve the day to day reality of the people whose lives and rights you are concerned about, in a way that can be proven, then do something else, or do more.”

Last Wednesday’s Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award ceremony at the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) annual meeting in DC was a night to remember.  When we first wrote about ICAR’s selection of the CIW’s longtime general counsel, Steve Hitov, as the inaugural recipient of the award earlier this month, we were looking forward to an all-too-rare opportunity to celebrate Steve’s remarkable career and his many contributions to the CIW’s decades-long struggle for farm labor justice and universal human rights.  And when the big night finally arrived, we were not disappointed.  

The evening began with a series of truly moving tributes to Gwynne Skinner’s lifelong fight for corporate accountability, as colleagues and family members took turns speaking about her tireless commitment to justice for those whose lives are conscribed by the harsh conditions at the bottom of corporate supply chains.  The speakers’ words, and their tears, made one thing perfectly clear: The idea to celebrate Gwynne Skinner’s life with an annual award for human rights was a brilliant one.  

As was the idea to present the inaugural award to Steve Hitov.

In our first post on the award, we explained some of the reasons why we were so pleased to receive the news of Steve’s selection.  But today we’d like to step back and let Steve do the talking, to give you a fuller sense of our longtime colleague, and of his personal philosophy of social change, in his own words.  So, without further ado, what follows is the transcript of Steve’s comments from last week’s ceremony.  We hope – and trust – you will enjoy them as much as we did:

Thank you very much.  I didn’t know Gwynne Skinner, but I know that she worked tirelessly to think of ways to make corporations more accountable for their actions.  I am therefore proud to be the first recipient of a human rights award established in her memory, and I would like to thank the members of the selection committee for honoring me in this way.

As many of you know, the Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award recognizes the work of an individual or an organization that has significantly advanced the field of corporate accountability.  And with this initial award, the committee has gotten a twofer, for anything I may have accomplished that would warrant tonight’s recognition is entirely intertwined with the work of the CIW.  Their truly revolutionary vision, their clear thinking and their tenacity has infused me with energy for the past 25 years.  It is easy to work hard for human rights, in fact it is hard not to, when surrounded by such inspirational people.  

But tonight I would like to present some of my own personal observations, some related to the success of the Fair Food Program and the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model, and others more general in nature.  I doubt that you will agree with all of them, but I do hope you will find them thought-provoking and perhaps helpful as you pursue our common goal of real corporate accountability.  I promise not to offer too many propositions for your consideration because I, like you, am eager to get down to dinner.

OK, proposition No. 1:   Huge multinational corporations represent the new world order.  Some are financially larger and stronger than many of the countries in which they operate.  Their supply chains seamlessly cross national borders.  They therefore provide an already existing international structure that can be supportive, obstructive or, most often, indifferent to the pursuit of human rights worldwide.  The Fair Food Program has demonstrated that, if constrained by the demands of organized consumers and the workers whose lives are most directly affected by current supply chain practices, the enormous market power of these multinational corporations can be harnessed as a uniquely effective tool to further human rights.   In short, the same power that fosters an environment conducive to the wide-scale violation of human rights can also be used to eliminate those violations. 

Proposition No. 2:  The solution to the ubiquitous human rights violations that persist in the supply chains of huge companies does not lie with the governments of the countries within which the corporations operate.  This is one place where I think the UN Guiding Principles went astray.  The workers at the bottom of multinational supply chains are always poor or otherwise marginalized within the broader society.  That is precisely why they can be treated as they are.  I think it is unrealistic to expect the very governments that have marginalized a group of people to also act as their protectors.  This is not only a matter of allocation of resources, although that is an issue, too.  Rather, it is a structural problem that reflects the lack of status and power of the workers at the bottom of a supply chain.  It is not clear to me whether governments could meaningfully address human rights violations in corporate supply chains if they really wanted to, but it is clear to me that they haven’t done so, and there is little evidence that they really want to.  Indeed, in the near term, I suspect that governments will increasingly become part of the problem, not part of the solution, as the work force in more developed countries is increasingly made up of migrants, and nationalistic fervor increasingly legitimizes a belief that non-resident workers are essentially non-human. 

Proposition #3:  Enforcement is everything.  Most corporations of course have a supplier code of conduct, and most of those prohibit forced labor.  Similarly, many countries have laws that prohibit forced labor.  And yet, as we all know, forced labor and other human rights violations remain common.  Why is that?  It is because a code of conduct, no matter how extensive, and whether or not it has been created by the workers who are supposed to benefit from it, will not change a single thing on the ground.  Only enforcement of that code of conduct, or a statute, will accomplish change.  Without ongoing and thorough enforcement, codes of conduct and laws are just words on paper.  To borrow UN speak for a moment, they may be necessary, but they are not sufficient.

In the Fair Food Program, we have learned that while regular and thorough audits are important, it is the presence of a confidential, 24/7 complaint resolution line that is most responsible for the sweeping changes that have occurred.  The complaint line makes every worker a potential enforcer, and one who is always present where the abuses occur.  This of course addresses the lack of resources issue confronting even well-meaning governments.  But it does something much more important.  Rather than addressing human rights violations after the fact, the omnipresence of potential enforcers prevents abuses from happening in the first place.  When we are talking about forced labor, or rape, or other sexual assault, I suspect it is cold comfort to know that after you have gone through that horror you might have some sort of legal remedy on the other side.  On Fair Food Program farms, women no longer have to check their dignity at the farm gate.  Because our system of enforcement is so thorough, sexual assault is essentially a thing of the past.

While the way we do real enforcement may not be the only way to accomplish that, without some mechanism for real enforcement, enforcement that prevents human rights abuses, not just addresses them after the fact, there simply will not be meaningful change.  If, as this year’s Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award winner, I may be given a “go forth and do good” moment, I would challenge each of you to ask this simple question.  Will what I am about to do create meaningful and sustainable change, or will it just be words on paper?  If it won’t improve the day to day reality of the people whose lives and rights you are concerned about, in a way that can be proven, then do something else, or do more.

59 years ago I was voted most likely to succeed by my very small high school class.  So tonight’s recognition is not my first.  However, at the rate of one every 60 years or so, I am virtually certain it will be my last.  Given that, I cannot begin to express how honored I am to be the first recipient of the Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award.

Thank you.