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Putting the power in workers’ hands: FLEX scopes a new approach to tackling labour abuse and exploitation

July 4, 2019

A new FLEX project, ‘Turning up the volume: Putting workers’ voice at the heart of efforts to tackle labour abuse and exploitation in supply chains’, funded by the Freedom Fund, is exploring how workers can gain more power in supply chains and participate in the creation of labour standards that benefit their daily lives.

The problem of corporate self-regulation: Too little change on the ground

The idea that companies can regulate their own behaviour and improve the treatment of their workforce has become an implicit assumption in our global economy. In the UK, Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 provides a key example of this corporate self-regulation. It requires companies over a certain size to report on what steps they are taking, if any, to tackle human trafficking and forced labour in their supply chains. It relies on companies to set the agenda against which they report and, with no current state-level monitoring of the quality of company reports nor sanctions for non-compliance, consumers and civil society are expected to act as the main watchdogs to ensure meaningful corporate action.

In response to this legislation, the UK’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) industry is blooming. Industry-led initiatives are growing their clientele, with programmes, toolkits and auditing schemes presented as solutions for companies to these abuses in their supply chains. However, corporate self-regulation, and the emphasis on consumers and civil society scrutinising its efficacy, is not working.

Research by FLEX and others has shown that current corporate accountability initiatives are not serving to bring about change for workers on the ground. This is because they are largely based on voluntary commitments by companies and their suppliers, broad standards that rarely go further than local labour law, and ineffective or non-existent monitoring and enforcement. In addition, industry-led initiatives rarely address companies’ own business models and purchasing practices that have been shown to drive poor employment practices among their suppliers.

CSR approaches also tend not to engage meaningfully with workers themselves or to recognise the importance of worker organising and collective bargaining in preventing labour abuses. Companies may include nominal ‘worker voice’ provisions in industry initiatives, while simultaneously refusing to recognise trade unions or operating in business environments where freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are systematically denied to all or some groups of workers.

The ineffectiveness of corporate self-regulation is being compounded by ‘light-touch’ state labour inspection, including limited monitoring and enforcement of labour standards. The more businesses are required to regulate themselves, the less the state regulates businesses. The UK currently has one of the poorest resourced labour inspectorates in Europe, less than half the ILO’s recommended ratio of one inspector per 10,000 workers. Whereas 90% of labour inspections in Norway are based on risk assessment rather than individual complaints, labour inspection in the UK relies predominantly on worker complaints to trigger investigations. This is a significant limitation considering the most at-risk workers are the least likely to make complaints.

A potential solution: Worker-driven social responsibility

Industry-led initiatives allow corporations to dictate the metrics by which they are judged to be responsible or not. As a result, companies can score highly in ethical audits while continuing to enable conditions that drive exploitation. A new model of supply chain regulation, worker-driven social responsibility (WSR), is looking to challenge this system.

WSR turns key features of CSR on their head:

  • First, instead of being corporate-led, the workplace standards set under WSR programmes are designed together with workers. They cover everything from wage rates to health and safety, and are tailored to specific work contexts. In agriculture, this might include access to drinking water and mobile shade structures in fields.
  • Second, instead of being voluntary, WSR programmes are based on legally binding contracts between the relevant workers’ organisation and the company at the top of the supply chain. This means the lead company can be taken to court for violating the agreement. There are also real economic consequences for non-compliance by suppliers – if they do not comply with the programme’s standards, the lead company stops buying from them.
  • Third, all workers receive peer-to-peer education on their rights and what to do if they experience problems or know their employer is in violation of the standards.
  • Fourth, there are clear pathways for workers to report abuses: a 24-hour confidential hotline, alongside thorough monitoring carried out by an independently funded body. Workers can report violations without fear of reprisal and in the knowledge that their complaint will trigger an immediate investigation.
  • Finally, under WSR, companies are obliged to support their suppliers to comply with the standards, either through direct financial incentives or better purchasing practices.

The most famous example of WSR is the Fair Food Program (FFP), an agreement between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, farmers and food retailers, including big brand fast food companies and supermarkets. The FFP was developed in Florida where there was wide-scale forced labour within the tomato picking sector. It has been so successful in addressing worker exploitation, including gender-based violence, forced labour and human trafficking, that it has been called “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” and comparable schemes have been expanded to cover other crops, sectors and states. There is a strong movement for the adoption of WSR models globally, led by the US-based Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network, and other examples of WSR include Milk with Dignity in the United States and The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Bringing meaningful change to more workers: Adapting WSR for new contexts

Recognising the success of WSR in the US, FLEX is now embarking on a research project to understand the adaptability of the model to new contexts, including the UK. We will be exploring two key questions: First, what would WSR look like in countries or sectors where trade unions are active? On US farms, where WSR first developed, workers’ right to organise is not protected by law; in Bangladesh, trade unions are key members of The Accord, but have faced harsh repression. Secondly, we will be asking whether there are ways for state labour inspectorates to become involved in a WSR model and what barriers and opportunities there might be in taking this approach. WSR has evolved largely without state involvement, leading to concerns that, like CSR, it is replacing state obligations to prevent labour abuse and protect workers from exploitation.

In the coming months we will be exploring these questions, scoping the views of academics, experts experienced in WSR, UK trade unions, state labour inspectorates and businesses about the potential for WSR to improve labour standards and tackle worker abuse and exploitation, including forced labour and human trafficking. In doing so, we hope to provide a useful contribution to this exciting new field, supporting workers to improve their conditions and rebalancing power asymmetries within our global economy.