The litany of brutal human rights abuses in corporate supply chains around the globe just keeps getting longer by the day, and more horrifying with each new exposé.
Longtime readers of this site are familiar with the extensive history of labor abuse in America’s fields, including Florida’s own “Harvest of Shame.” From federal prosecutors declaring Florida “ground zero for modern-day slavery” (in the wake of seven prosecutions of forced labor operations that liberated well over 1,200 workers since 1995), to the recent PBS Frontline series “Rape in the Fields,” to the even more recent $17 million EEOC judgment against the two sons of an Immokalee area farm owner for serial sexual assault, the evidence of abuse is as extensive as it is well-documented.
Fortunately, within the confines of the Fair Food Program, we are eliminating many of the most egregious, longstanding abuses against farmworkers in the fields. Thanks to the program’s unique mix of worker education, exhaustive oversight achieved through both an exceptionally effective complaint resolution mechanism and the FFP’s deep-dive audits, and real market consequences for the failure to comply with the human rights code of conduct, abuses like forced labor, sexual assault, and violence against workers are now a thing of the past. And when less egregious abuses do occur — from wage theft to health and safety violations — workers have access to a protected complaint process to identify problems and fix them without delay.
Where workers have no voice, human rights violations flourish…
The Fair Food Program, and the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model to which it gave rise, are proven models of effective human rights enforcement. The WSR model is already in operation in the Bangladesh garment industry through the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety, signed in the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse that led to the death of more than 1,100 people and injured more than 2,000. It is working there to eliminate the safety hazards that led to an unconscionable toll of preventable deaths for a generation of textile workers. A program based on the WSR model is also taking root in Vermont to protect dairy workers’ rights and should come online within the year.
But beyond the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model, there are few, if any, similarly successful blueprints for the measurable protection of human rights in corporate supply chains. What does exist is an abundance of industries riddled with exploitation, poverty, and physical violence against workers with only traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives in place to address those abuses. And where that is the case, failure has almost invariably been the result, often with tragic consequences.
The case of the Mexican produce industry, exposed in a hard-hitting series of articles in the LA Times at the end of last year, is one recent case in point. Here’s a quick excerpt from that four-part series that summarizes the paper’s findings:
The Times found:
* Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
* Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
* Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
* Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
* Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.
The bottom line in the case of brutal farm labor exploitation in Mexico: The multi-billion dollar brands that buy and sell Mexican fruits and vegetables picked in these horrendous conditions have done little or nothing to remedy those abuses, much less prevent them.
Still more recent than the discovery of widespread child labor, forced labor, and sexual harassment in Mexico’s fields was July’s searing New York Times look into the gross human rights abuses in the Thai seafood industry. After leading with the story of a worker who, before finally escaping, suffered unimaginable abuses — including being “shackled by the neck whenever other boats neared” — at the hands of his employer, the NYT summarizes conditions in the industry:
… The misery endured by Mr. Long, who was eventually rescued by an aid group, is not uncommon in the maritime world. Labor abuse at sea can be so severe that the boys and men who are its victims might as well be captives from a bygone era. In interviews, those who fled recounted horrific violence: the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold.
The harsh practices have intensified in recent years, a review of hundreds of accounts from escaped deckhands provided to police, immigration and human rights workers shows. That is because of lax maritime labor laws and an insatiable global demand for seafood even as fishing stocks are depleted.
Shipping records, customs data and dozens of interviews with government and maritime officials point to a greater reliance on long-haul fishing, in which vessels stay at sea, sometimes for years, far from the reach of authorities. With rising fuel prices and fewer fish close to shore, fisheries experts predict that more boats will resort to venturing out farther, exacerbating the potential for mistreatment.
“Life at sea is cheap,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “And conditions out there keep getting worse.”
And what are the international corporations that buy fish caught in these conditions doing to ensure that workers’ fundamental human rights, and even their lives, are protected in their supply chains? From the Times’ article:
The United States is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand, more than doubling since 2009 and last year totaling more than $190 million. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American.
Though there is growing pressure from Americans and other Western consumers for more accountability in seafood companies’ supply chains to ensure against illegal fishing and contaminated or counterfeit fish, virtually no attention has focused on the labor that supplies the seafood that people eat, much less the fish that is fed to animals.
Again, according to the New York Times, the answer is mostly nothing.
Traditional Corporate Social Responsibility does not work because standards without enforcement are little more than empty promises…
Even when companies do take measures to address the abuses, one thing is abundantly clear: Unless those measures include real worker participation and market-backed enforcement mechanisms — the twin cornerstones of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model — they are virtually guaranteed to fail.
A blistering report issued this month by the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) — a migrant workers’ organization based in Thailand that is analogous to the CIW in the Florida agricultural industry — was featured in the fishing industry journal Undercurrent News (“Labor rights group: Thai abuses go on in certified, audited factories”). The MWRN report takes a critical look at the state of seafood workers’ rights and the programs purporting to protect those rights. Looking to the future of those failing initiatives, the article concludes:
… If the Thai industry and ILO, with support of the EU, continues to develop large scale programs to address migrant worker abuses in Thailand’s export sector without meaningful consultation with migrant workers and their representatives, MWRN are concerned any new program will develop again along the same lines as Phase 1 of the GLP program, that focused on employer awareness raising on standards and related training programs and government enforcement.
“We are concerned this program will crucially be one that fails to raise workers awareness of their rights, support workers to meaningfully organise with increased confidence, and there will continue to be no genuine, transparent and accessible complaint or enforcement mechanisms developed for the future. Without the latter features, these large scale programs will not, in our opinion, be successful nor sustainable in bringing positive change.”
The MWRN report’s conclusion is unequivocal. Without enforcement, made possible by worker education and participation in the protection of their own rights, even large scale, well-intentioned efforts “will not… be successful nor sustainable in bringing positive change.”
Indeed, enforcement will be — must be — the sine qua non of real social responsibility in the 21st century.
What does it take to enforce human rights?
The title of this post is of course a play on the old maxim about the importance of location in the real estate market. But truth be told, the formula for real social responsibility is a bit more subtle than that. If the WSR model were to be boiled down to its three essential ingredients, they would be:
- Worker leadership in the drafting of the standards and design of the program;
- Multiple layers of monitoring driven by the informed participation of the workers whose rights are in question;
- Enforcement backed by market consequences rooted in binding agreements with the brands at the top of the supply chain.
You can read more about how these elements work in concert to produce comprehensive, sustainable, and measurable social change in the agricultural industry through the Fair Food Program here.
To close, let’s take moment to focus on the italicized word in that last sentence — measurable. There is a movement in the world of social responsibility these days that has arisen in response to the abject failure of the standard CSR approach. This new movement recognizes that “robust” codes of conduct and occasional third party audits are simply not up to the task of eliminating human rights abuses. In an effort both to expose the shortcomings of the status quo and demand more of the brands that control vast global supply chains, this new push for accountability is calling for stricter, more public measurement of results from CSR efforts. The idea is that, faced with the objective failure of the current approach, brands will be forced to take more effective measures to protect human rights in their suppliers’ operations.
While measuring — or more accurately, verifying — the claimed impact of current social responsibility initiatives is certainly necessary, it is by no means sufficient if we are to get at the root of the growing human rights crisis from factories of Bangladesh to the seas of Thailand and the fields of Mexico and the United States. Indeed, the focus on measurement runs the risk of diverting attention from the real road to progress while creating yet another industry of social responsibility “experts” who derive a handsome living from articulating the exploitation of low-wage workers around the globe but do little or nothing to stop it.
The success of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model has made one thing very clear: The single most important measure of a human rights program is an assessment of its enforcement mechanisms and the role of informed workers in the function of those mechanisms.
The lessons from the past several decades of unabated human rights abuse in corporate supply chains are undeniable. Without real enforcement mechanisms, no code of conduct — no matter how “robust” or “high bar” — nor third party audits can protect workers’ human rights. The enforcement-focused WSR model, on the other hand, provides not only the best hope for real progress, but within its very mechanisms provides the means for meaningful measurement of outcomes. The Fair Food Program’s complaint investigation process, penetrating audits, corrective action plans (CAPs) derived from violations identified through both of those processes, and remedial audits to measure compliance with the CAPs are all essential to the enforcement of the program’s code of conduct and provide a constant means for measurement and documentation of progress toward its human rights goals. And it is those mechanisms, and those mechanisms alone, that have succeeded in ending forced labor and sexual assault where all other efforts, whether private sector or governmental, have failed.
In other words, measurement is an emergent property of a focus on enforcement, because the very tools of enforcement provide the means for the measurement of change.
In the final analysis, the only “stakeholders” with an existential and abiding interest in protecting human rights in corporate supply chains are the humans whose rights are at risk, the workers themselves. The 21st century solution to the failure of the traditional CSR model has already been developed. Worker-driven Social Responsibility, designed, monitored, and enforced with the active participation of workers, provides the blueprint for industries around the globe, that currently employ millions of men and women in unimaginably harsh conditions, to raise standards in their supply chains. What’s more, WSR, in its very enforcement mechanisms, provides the means to measure and evaluate progress toward the fundamental human rights goals enshrined in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights.