Governments and employers stand between workers and their focus on progress at the ILO
Time (and patience) running out for agreement on global supply chains
As the ILO debates how to improve working conditions in Global Supply Chains, Employers are resisting responsibility for malpractice in those chains and some governments are time wasting
The efforts of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to prepare an effective position on tackling widespread exploitation of workers producing goods for western companies are up against implacable opposition from the Employers, who clearly fear any formalisation of their role in stamping out long hours, dangerous working conditions, forced labour, low wages and many other abuses. Consensus must be found by midnight.
The ILO, the UN agency for labour standards, originally set the agenda for cross-border responsibilities of employers back in the 1970s with the snappily titled Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (also known as the MNE Declaration). Revised several times, including most recently in 2006, the MNE Declaration encouraged governments at both ends of supply chains to ensure they had ratified the fundamental ILO conventions relevant to protecting MNEs’ workers, and called on MNEs to respect not just laws, but development priorities and ‘social aims’ of their host countries.
Since then, despite those occasional upgrades, the ILO – despite it’s obvious remit – has rather been left behind on this issue. As MNEs have increasingly used supply chains, rather than direct sourcing, the MNE Declaration has been overtaken by the OECD Guidelines and the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGPs). The OECD system makes MNEs based in member countries subject to a complaints mechanism called the National Contact Point that can intervene no matter where the complaint originated. The UNGPs (also known as the ‘Ruggie Principles‘ after their author) are extremely thorough, but don’t contain anything that compels anyone concerned to follow their suggestions: either states to ‘enforce human rights’ or business to ‘respect’ them. In spite of this – or, as a cynic might say, because of it – they’ve become the darling of the Employer side and it can be hard to progress the debate on appropriate corporate behaviour beyond the UNGP text, which was surely never Ruggie’s intention.
This year, in an attempt to regain the initiative, the ILO is holding a tripartite discussion on Global Supply Chains, hoping to get agreement on what steps it should take to play its proper role in promoting ‘decent work‘ throughout the many layers and tendrils of modern business practices. More than a week into discussion, the divisions between workers, employers and certain governments are now being laid bare.
The task before us is to prepare a joint statement, agreed by all parties, that sets out a way forward for the ILO – and its constituent members – to begin the task of protecting vulnerable workers. The ILO may now be tempted to develop a cat herding policy as an easier option.
The Bangladesh government forced us to delete a reference to the Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord as a good practice example. The Brazilian government is leading its cohort of support (otherwise known as paragon-of-workers’-rights Guatemala) into battle against labour standards in Free Trade Agreements and is engaged in a bizarre crusade about the possibility of the ILO providing mediation and dispute settlement for partners in international framework agreements which has currently wasted about half an hour. The Indian government has problems with mentions of the OECD Guidelines (and is siding with Brazil). On the other hand the European Union has been superbly progressive, as have the countries of the African group – without them we’d have got nowhere.
So far, it’s been difficult even to establish that global supply chains contain exploitation and poor conditions (even though that’s why we’re all here). The Employers’ representatives – even though they have now accepted that there are governance gaps leaving workers unprotected – are deeply concerned at the suggestion that global supply chains may not be A Good Thing, and after a deadlock the text in question has been pushed to the climactic closing of the discussion tonight. At almost every opportunity the Employers have sought to weaken language and are so far off the pace of the ethical trade debate that their chairman asked:
“If State A wants minimum labour standards in an agreement with State B, but State B’s culture and policy do not have such standards, how does State A enforce this without invading State B’s sovereignty?”
The Employer spokesperson is therefore not quite sure if expecting countries to enforce core labour standards (the thing the ILO exists to promote) is some form of imperialism. Activists from unions and NGOs committed to challenging abuse of workers around the world may be shocked at the possibility that they are vessels for the reincarnated spirit of Cecil Rhodes: they might also wonder how, in a world where trade agreements like TTIP still contain proposals for MNEs to be able to sue states with policies they think will affect their profits, it’s off limits to demand that factory or farm workers have fundamental rights.
Despite this, and despite some governments’ determination to trash their own reputations, the partners are slowly moving towards the end of the text. The Employers have been reasonable in a number of cases as they and the Workers have traded concessions in pursuit of consensus, and they are appearing more and more reasonable as certain governments start misbehaving. For all the showcase of cooperation and compromise that this provides, though, there will still be a twist in the story, one way or the other: the very end of the text contains the major fault-line between Workers and Employers, and between progressive governments and those like Brazil and India (or, at least, their representatives). It all comes down to “what happens next”.
By the witching hour we will know if the ILO’s ‘tripartite constituents’ will back a process of formal examination of governance gaps and standards that could lead to new mechanisms designed to protect workers in the supply chains or decide – the alternative – that we trudge back here in three years and do this all again. The Employers have clung to the line that the UNGPs only give them a duty to ‘respect’ human rights, and that nothing should be done to compel them to do so (they don’t need the “lash of the whip”, apparently). They are also chary of any transnational mechanisms that might allow responsibilities to follow them down the supply chain across jurisdictional boundaries – sadly exactly the sort of thing the Workers (and several governments) are looking to the ILO to provide.
It’s not only ethical consumers who would view this as a betrayal of their concerns, or just the ILO leadership that will rue a missed opportunity to make the organisation superbly relevant to the modern world of work. We’d also be astonished if British employers (many of them members of the Ethical Trading Initiative and signatories to a statement requesting regulation for compulsory reporting on due diligence in the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, and who – along with the British Retail Consortium – welcomed its inclusion) will be happy if Employer representatives here fail to move us towards an international mechanism that might protect not only workers in their supply chains, but would also defend their chances of developing ethical business models in the face of being undercut by cynical and exploitative rivals.
There’s still time for an agreement on this – but not much.
(updates in comments below)