Worker Power in Global Supply Chains

Anna Triponel

September 22, 2023
Our key takeaway: National organisations, such as NGOs and trade unions, are critical to companies’ ability to ensure robust human rights and environmental protections throughout their value chain. This is because national organisations challenge power dynamics conducive to workers’ exploitation; build power for workers and affected communities; and advocate for workers’ right to organise and bargain collectively, which is an enabling right from which all other human rights and workplace rights can be realised. The Accountability Working Paper highlights how companies are failing to look beyond supply chain monitoring and social audits to support the reforms called for by national organisations and worker advocates. What can companies do? Companies can (1) speak and engage with national organisations who “hold critical information on the contextual challenges and the laws and policies needed to protect workers and their communities”; (2) ensure robust alignment with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights when conducting human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD); (3) consider how the local and political context may be a barrier to effective remedy; and (4) counterbalance the closing of civic space and provide adequate resources to support worker organising and the capacity of national organisations to continue work in this area.

The Accountability Working Paper published ‘Building Worker Power in Global Supply Chains: Lessons from Apparel, Cocoa, and Seafood’ (September 2023):

  • The drivers of robust HREDD and what it means for companies: The report highlights the move away from social auditing programs to binding agreements, laws and import bans to manage companies’ impacts on human rights and the environment. Social auditing programs have attracted criticism for being ineffective at addressing human rights abuses in global supply chains: “the voluntary and confidential nature of these workplace monitoring programs left workers and their trade unions on the margins of any solutions developed.” Many are advocating for worker-driven and legally binding approaches to protecting human rights. These measures include (1) a worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) approach centred around binding agreements between worker organisations and companies; (2) HREDD laws passed by several European countries, which the UNGPs have paved the way for. The report states that these laws could “advance transparency and access to remedy” but that this would require “expanding the capacity and interconnectivity among NGOs and trade unions to monitor implementation, help workers file grievances, and pursue remedy”; and (3) forced labour import bans such as the US Tariff Act of 1930.

  • The importance of national organizations to companies’ efforts of conducting effective HREDD: The report highlights how organizers, such as national NGOs, trade unions, and worker centres, play a crucial role in companies’ HREDD processes. For instance, they are important representative proxies of potentially affected stakeholders and are “usually best placed to document worker rights abuses and understand worker perspectives.” National civil society organisations interviewed in this study all emphasise the importance of “a whole-of-worker approach and organizing strategies that consider community-wide needs and movement-building strategies.” They work at “addressing needs such as access to health care, legal remedy, and political participation, and workers’ ability to have a voice at work through organizing and collective bargaining rights.” Thus, a ‘whole-of-worker’ approach to HREDD creates a political and workplace environment conducive to robust human rights protections and remedy.

  • Recommendations for companies: The report recommends that companies: (1) Consider how to tackle closing civic space when conducting human rights due diligence. For instance, companies can “demonstrate their support for the organizers building social movements and prevent their suppliers from undue harassment of workers seeking remedy and their advocates”; (2) Provide adequate resources “to strengthen worker organizing and the capacity of civil society to monitor the implementation of reforms.” This is important to ensure that reforms tackle the root causes of human rights abuses beyond one-off programs that “rarely challenge the legal or political context perpetuating abuse”; (3) Engage with independent stakeholders “directly connected to worker communities and seeking to build countervailing power.” Of note are transnational supply chain advocacy networks (TSCANs) who have connected global South national organizers to international policy tools and leverage. Specifically, their “advocacy for new rules and more effective legal pathways to remedy, combined with their social movement building, makes them key players to advancing a more equitable global economy”; (4) Consider how development aid to repressive governments may undermine worker rights movement; and (5) Recognise that HREDD laws go beyond social auditing programs in relation to stakeholder engagement. While the former emphasises the importance of stakeholder engagement, the latter favours “one-off, scripted consultations over meaningful engagement with trade unions.”

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