Sean Sellers is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network. Prior to joining WSR Network staff, Sean spent nearly fifteen years supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) efforts to improve labor conditions in U.S. agriculture. From 2003 to 2010, Sean worked in several capacities on the Campaign for Fair Food. In 2011, his work pivoted to the implementation of the Fair Food Program (FFP) across the Florida tomato industry and beyond. Sean was a founding staff member of the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), the program’s third-party monitor, where he worked as a senior investigator until 2016. Sean has a BS and MA from the University of Texas at Austin.
Theresa Haas is the Director of Outreach and Education at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network. Prior to joining WSR Network staff, Theresa served as the Director of Communications for the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor rights monitoring organization, which works to protect and defend the rights of workers who make clothing and other consumer goods. While at the WRC, she helped to develop and launch the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally-binding agreement between workers and apparel brands to make factories safe. She is a graduate of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University.
In a shrinking world of increasingly globalized markets, low-wage workers at the base of corporate supply chains remain isolated, vulnerable, exploited and abused. Governments, which should be responsible for protecting the rights of their citizens, often lack the resources or political will to do so. State-based enforcement agencies
and policy frameworks consistently fail to protect workers from dangerous sweatshop conditions and even severe abuses, including forced labor, sexual harassment and rape, in no small part because those suffering the abuse are largely voiceless. Where collective bargaining rights exist and are enforced, unions can provide effective workplace protections. But even when those rights exist in the law, they are ignored in practice for millions of workers, while millions more are excluded from the legal right to form a union altogether.
Corporations, of course, also bear responsibility for ensuring that human rights are respected in their suppliers’ operations, but they tend to treat the discovery flaw that corporations, of course, also bear responsibility for ensuring that human rights are respected in their suppliers’ operations, but they tend to treat the discovery of abuses in their supply chains as public relations crises to be managed, rather than human rights violations to be remedied. Seeking to protect their brands from reputational harm, corporations embrace strategies that profess adherence to fundamental human rights standards but establish no effective mechanisms for enforcing those standards. This approach, known broadly as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is characterized by voluntary commitments, broad standards that often merely mirror local law, ineffective or non-existent monitoring, and the absence of any commitment to or mechanisms for enforcement of the meager standards that do exist. CSR has failed to address the ongoing human rights crisis in global supply chains in large part because it does not put workers – the very people whose rights are in question and who have the most direct knowledge of the relevant environment – at the center of developing and enforcing solutions to the problem. This failure is evident at all levels of CSR – in its structure, governance, operation and allocation of resources – and it is this fundamental design flaw that makes the failure of these systems inevitable.
In recent years, however, this bleak portrait has begun to change. Both in the US and abroad, workers and their organizations have forged effective solutions that ensure the real, verifiable protection of human rights in corporate supply chains. This new paradigm is known as Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR). It has been tested in some of the most stubbornly exploitative labor environments in the world today – including the agricultural fields of Florida, which were once dubbed “ground zero for modern-day slavery” by federal prosecutors, and the apparel sweatshops of Bangladesh, the locus of some of this century’s most horrific factory fires and building collapses. In these oppressive environments, WSR has proven its ability to eliminate longstanding abuses and change workers’ lives for the better every day. Consequently, interest in the model is growing from beyond these initial sectors. What does such an approach require?
Elements and Mechanisms
Stepping back, there are several key principles underlying the WSR model. In order to achieve meaningful and lasting improvements, labor rights programs in corporate supply chains must be worker-driven, enforcement-focused, and based on legally binding commitments that place responsibility for improving working conditions on the global corporations at the top of those supply chains:
Workers are the only actors in the supply chain with a vital and abiding interest in ensuring that their rights are protected. As importantly, only workers are fully aware of the many manifestations of abuse that occur in their workplace. Indeed, they are the first to know about the vast majority of human rights violations. Consequently, workers are uniquely situated to be the most effective monitors of their own rights, and they and their organizations must be at the head of the table in the creation, monitoring, and enforcement of programs designed to improve their situation. Where workers are unable to participate freely because of repressive laws or practices, companies sourcing from those places should nonetheless embrace all other aspects of WSR, including, most importantly, an effective enforcement mechanism.
Respect for human rights in corporate supply chains cannot be optional, voluntary, or time-limited. Effective enforcement is key to the success of any social responsibility program. Worker organizations must be able to enforce the commitments of brands and retailers as a matter of contractual obligation. Among the obligations of the brands and retailers must be the imposition of meaningful, swift, and certain economic consequences for suppliers that violate their workers’ human rights, as meaningful economic consequences for suppliers have proven uniquely effective for the enforcement of those rights in the workplace. Only programs that include such economic consequences can ensure real human rights protections for workers at the base of global and domestic supply chains.
Placing responsibility at the top of the chain.
Increasingly consolidated corporations at the top of supply chains place constant downward price pressure on their suppliers, and this price pressure inexorably translates into downward pressure on wages and labor conditions as suppliers seek to protect often thin profit margins. In this way, the market regularly incentivizes abuse. Companies at the top of the chain must do their part to reverse this pernicious dynamic. Specifically, corporations must incentivize respect for human rights through a price premium, negotiated higher prices, and/or other financial contributions (such as licensing fees, support payments for monitoring, or direct payments for work facility improvements, etc.). With this support, suppliers can afford the additional costs associated with compliance with decent labor standards.
Elements and Mechanisms
Beyond these principles, social responsibility programs must include the following monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to be successful. Together, not individually, these mechanisms constitute the core of the WSR model:
Worker-defined codes and standards.
Codes of conduct and workplace standards cannot be “one size fits all.” Rather they must be tailored to address the particular abusive practices and actors specific to the industries in which they are operative. Unlike outside experts, only workers and their organizations have the direct experience necessary to develop industry-specific standards, making worker participation indispensable in the drafting of effective codes of conduct.
Workers must know their rights under the code if they are to be effective frontline monitors of those rights. Further, independent audits are infinitely more valuable when coupled with worker education, which allows workers to act as partners with outside auditors, building trust in what is otherwise often a foreign and suspect process for workers. Worker education empowers workers to play their unique role in making labor rights a daily reality in the workplace.
Audits, often infrequent and perfunctory, are the exclusive monitoring mechanism in the vast majority of traditional CSR programs and have proven inadequate time and time again. The only truly effective mechanism for uncovering and fixing human rights violations is a protected, 24/7 complaint investigation and resolution process. Traditional audits are, at best, a snapshot of working conditions during a brief window of time, while an effective complaint resolution mechanism functions like a continuous video feed from the workplace, providing an open channel for workers to bring code violations to the attention of investigators without fear of retaliation.
Comprehensive audits and inspections.
When combined with effective worker education and a protected complaint resolution mechanism, independent audits can identify and address code violations that take place outside the workers’ direct experience. To be effective, audits must go well beyond the traditional audit protocols and include interviews of a percentage of workers sufficient to establish a comprehensive picture of workplace dynamics, as well as unfettered access to management personnel and documents. Preferably, to avoid the gaming of audits that is today the norm, the auditors should have a deep understanding of the industry being audited.
Market consequences for suppliers that violate standards.
Workers and corporate buyers must enter into legally binding contracts that establish swift and certain economic consequences for suppliers who fail to comply with the applicable code, including zero tolerance for the most egregious violations.
Finally, transparency is an essential component of any effective labor rights program. WSR should include public disclosure of the names and locations of participating buyers and suppliers.
Public Disclosure of Names and Locations of Participating Buyers and Suppliers
Despite decades of implementation of CSR programs in global supply chains, workers who make and harvest the products we consume are exploited on a daily basis in a variety of egregious and often hidden ways. CSR has failed to address or prevent these violations, generating little return on investment. Corporations run the very real risk that revelations of worker abuse in their supply chain will harm their brand.
In order to minimize these risks, corporations should adopt and implement the WSR model. This requires brands to sign legally binding WSR agreements with worker organizations to effectively define, monitor and enforce workplace standards in their supply chains. In addition to addressing the risks of reputational harm at its roots, WSR programs create safer workplaces and may lower employee turnover, thereby helping to control related administrative costs. WSR programs represent a rare win-win-win for workers, suppliers and brands alike.
The WSR Network was formed in 2015 by leading practitioners in this emergent field, including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Worker Rights Consortium, and others. The objectives of the Network are to support the development, diffusion and uptake of WSR as a practical, operational alternative to traditional CSR and MSIs. Towards this end, the Network has begun to develop a resource library for possible WSR practitioners. To date, this includes deeper analyses of the elements and mechanisms discussed above, as well as a tool for assessing the feasibility of creating WSR programs beyond where it now operates. It is hoped that these publicly available tools, as well as support from the Network itself, will be useful for worker organizations as well as aligned advocates, researchers and compliance officers who seek to create sustainable change for workers in global supply chains.