Increasingly lengthy supply chains can include as many countries as a row of UN flags
Workers’ rights in global supply chains debated at the ILO: fireworks predicted
The question of how to better protect workers in global supply chains is dominating discussions at this year’s ILO conference in Geneva.
The 105th conference session of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – the UN agency that sets international labour standards – opened today. The ILO is tripartite, so governments are accompanied by representatives of workers and employers who get an equal vote in the final decisions taken.
On the back of some notable successes – 2014’s Forced Labour standard was adopted by the UK government earlier this year – the ILO is this year tussling with some hefty issues. Its standard setting discussion covers the role of employment in the transition from war to peace, hopefully to be updated from its 1944 version to include modern threats such as climate disaster. In another committee, one employer delegate predicted “fireworks” as the ILO discusses how to bring decent work to global supply chains (GSCs). This isn’t yet a standard setting discussion, but it has attracted such interest that the room initially assigned to hold it was found to be too small to cope with the numbers registered to attend. The issue of decent work in GSCs is one of extraordinary relevance to the modern world of work, and a rare opportunity for the ILO to demonstrate its effectiveness to everyone from world leaders to the high street shopper wondering about the origin of a cut-price T-shirt. The promise of fireworks may make it even more of a draw.
Certainly, the views of the social partners appear entrenched on this issue. The Workers, including representatives from countries at the rough end of the supply chain, want a new standard to address ‘governance gaps’: holes in international protections that leave workers in some countries vulnerable to varying degrees of exploitation, all of it unacceptable. Where workers’ rights are weak, the cost of production tends to be low – coming as it does without a bill for wages covering basic living costs and some handy savings on basic health and safety – and appears to be irresistibly tempting to even companies with publicly declared high ethical standards. For as long as these gaps exist, supply chains will colonise and exploit them.
What this means for workers is low wages that lead to excessive working hours as workers strive to edge their pay up to the level they need, dangerous health & safety conditions like those that were so costly at Rana Plaza and the constant threat of forced labour lurking at the hazy and ‘complex’ extremes of the supply chain.
ILO standards are crucial. They form the basis of many of the mechanisms and laws put in place to protect workers and others effected by the actions of global business, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the the OECD Guidance for Multi-National Enterprises, as well as the social protections built into EU trade agreements. If existing standards are leaving workers exposed to exploitation (which they clearly are), action is required urgently to address this.
Dissenting voices (from the general direction of the employers) suggest that there is no governance gap, but that the problem is of more complex provenance, including too few ratifications of the many existing labour standards that together might be considered to cover the basics, and that clearer guidance could help all involved understand the myriad existing standards relevant to supply chains. This feels like a defensive opening position, perhaps looking to dampen progress towards a standard while they try to find out what would be required of them as companies.
The arguments they deploy in their defence remain flawed and often contradictory. If ratification of diverse conventions remains a problem, a new standard would be easier to rally around and push for, as with the recently launched campaign to get countries to ratify the new Forced Labour Protocol. If there are no governance gaps, why do so many supply chains end in countries with weak regulatory regimes? As for the impenetrable complexity of supply chains, the oft-repeated excuse for employer inaction, the truth is that companies choose these supply chains to increase profits – they’re not forced upon them, except by competition from unscrupulous competitors: in which case an increase in global governance that levels the playing field for good companies can only help.
In some countries, the move towards combatting abuse through legislation continues: the UK has its Modern Slavery Act, in the US President Obama has closed legal loopholes that allowed the import of products made through forced labour and France is working on its own due diligence laws. At the ILO, the EU countries have just confirmed that they do recognise that governance gaps exist and they have asked for ILO help in addressing them. The challenge for the ILO is to find the right way of bridging those gaps – a way forward that both works and has the backing of workers, governments and those reluctant employers.
This year NGOs have been allowed to speak to the committee, and organisations such as Human Rights Watch, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Anti-Slavery International as well as several Global Union Federations have taken their turn to provide evidence on the human cost of poorly governed supply chains and to back the Workers’ call for a binding ILO standard. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a failure to move towards this could be seen as anything other than a huge missed opportunity for the organisation.
Despite that, if there are fireworks in the room, no-one has lit them yet. There is still hope that all parties will be persuaded to keep their matches in their pockets and work together instead, which is what the ILO is all about.