Why don’t companies recognise that unions are essential in the fight against modern slavery?
Everyone, it seems, is now committed to ending forced labour and child labour. Governments, international institutions, NGOs and businesses have come under enormous pressure to do something — and to be seen to be doing something.
A good example of this is a resolution on forced labour passed by the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), which brings together senior executives from the consumer goods sector to lead positive change in business practices. The CGF recently published a booklet of success stories entitled Business Actions Against Forced Labour, featuring leading companies such as Unilever, Tesco and M&S, and outlines the actions they are taking.
The booklet opens with a message from Zed Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:
“Forced labour is a widespread problem in supply chains globally. Virtually every country is touched in some way by this modern form of slavery. With 21 million individuals suffering as victims of forced labour today, a problem of this magnitude cannot be solved without essential cross-sectoral collaboration between businesses, government, civil society and workers’ organisations.”
I could not agree more.
But this mention of “workers’ organisations” in the Foreword is the first and last time they are mentioned in the report. None of the companies mentioned – companies who are being singled out for the great work they are doing fighting against forced labour – mentions them. The term “trade unions” appears nowhere in the report.
And yet one cannot imagine a successful fight against forced labour and child labour without putting trade unions first and foremost.
That is certainly the position of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which has just released two new Guidance Reports on Modern Slavery (with a focus on forced labour) and Child Labour. Those reports give advice to companies to help them understand the key concepts, their legal responsibilities, and suggests practical steps they can take to tackle these rights violations.
The role of trade unions is central in ETI’s strategy for combatting modern slavery.
The report on child labour makes it clear from the outset that “ending child labour requires the involvement of many others, apart from businesses” – among them, trade unions.
The Guidance on Child Labour is critical of existing social audits, insisting that these “should be complemented by information from labour inspectors, local civil society organisations, trade union representatives and other labour rights experts.”
The report encourages large multinational companies to consider developing an international framework agreement with global union federations.
It calls on businesses to recognise “freedom of association” and explains what this means in practice: “workers’ right to form trade unions and engage in collective bargaining.”
The second Guidance report on Modern Slavery, contains even more examples of ETI’s putting unions front and centre in the fight.
For example, it highlights the role of unions as organisations “that can act on behalf of vulnerable workers” and urges businesses to ensure workers have access to them.
It calls on employers to work “in partnership with other key stakeholders, such as trade unions and NGOs” and gives concrete examples of this happening.
It clearly identifies “lack of trade union presence and freedom of association” as a factor that may contribute to modern slavery.
ETI differs from most other organisations working in this field in its commitment to trade unions, NGOs and businesses working together to address these issues.
Without trade unions, we will never be able to deal with the horror that is modern slavery. Everyone else working on these issues should agree.