'Some Kids Are Not Orphans Because Of This': How Unions Are Keeping Workers Safe
As labor unions across much of the world struggle to increase their membership, how do workers get their employers to raise wages and assure safe conditions? That’s the question some of the world’s most innovative worker groups are asking. And they’re hopeful they have found a solution.
Several of those groups gathered last week to launch an ambitious effort to improve the lives of millions of workers in the corporate supply chains.
Among them was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based group that has pressured Taco Bell, McDonald’s and others into getting their tomato growers in Florida to stamp out sexual assault by crew leaders, and a Minneapolis workers’ group, the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, that persuaded Target to adopt a code of conduct for its cleaning contractors to end wage theft and seven-day working weeks for their janitors.
Kalpona Akter, a labor activist from Bangladesh, was on hand to sing the praises of a union-corporate accord that requires strong new safety rules for that country’s apparel factories to prevent catastrophic fires and building collapses.
Meeting at the Ford Foundation to kick off the new effort, these and other worker advocacy groups maintained that corporate self-regulation was not doing nearly enough to assure safety and adequate conditions for the tens of millions of workers in apparel, electronics and agricultural supply chains worldwide.
They are pinning their hopes on a new effort that aims to have workers play a central role in developing workplace codes of conduct and in overseeing enforcement of these codes. Their new effort is called the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network.
The status quo has led to disasters at apparel factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan, where fires – and egregious safety lapses – have cost hundreds of lives. Those deaths came even though western retailers and brands had sent auditing firms to inspect factories for safety.
“We want to go from a culture of audit-and-ignore to a culture of inspect-and-remedy,” said Ineke Zeldenrust director of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European-wide anti-sweatshop group.
There are several essential ingredients or principles for any effort that seeks to succeed in bettering conditions for workers in supply chains, according to the initiative:
have workers play a central role in developing codes of conduct and make those codes contractually enforceable;
have workers help select and oversee the workplace monitors and;
impose real market consequences when companies violate those codes of conduct.
“We know that companies don’t regulate themselves,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a factory monitoring group sponsored by 180 American universities. “If we substitute voluntary corporate self-regulation with enforceable agreements between corporations and worker representatives, we can have a real world impact in terms of protecting workers’ rights. We have to hold corporations accountable as a matter of contract and not rely on their good graces.”
This unorthodox approach has strong support from organized labor – the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers and the International Association of Machinists have endorsed the network’s principles.
“We are strong supporters,” said Cathy Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO’s international department. “The labor movement has been about finding worker-driven solutions.”
Feingold said that unions have always held up collective bargaining as the most effective route for worker power, but she noted that only about 12% of American workers are covered by union contracts. Feingold and others noted that the new network, much like traditional labor unions, is insisting on contractually enforceable agreements (in the form of codes of conduct) and real enforcement and real penalties when those agreements are violated.
“The reality is that far too few workers are able to bargain collectively,” Feingold said. “Plain and simple, unions cannot do this alone. We have to build what we see here.”
Feingold attended the gathering that kicked off this new effort – it was backed by the Ford Foundation, NoVo Foundation and NEO Philanthropy.
“We have to have innovative models,” Feingold said. “We need to be experimenting.”
The Worker Rights Consortium and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers played a key role in developing the new network. Nova of the Consortium had helped to negotiate the landmark Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was created after the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in 2013, killing 1,134 workers.
Nova and Greg Asbed, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, recognized the similarities between the efforts in Bangladesh and in Florida – worker-developed codes of conduct that were contractually enforceable, rigorous monitoring, and real penalties when producers violated the code. To spread this idea and create the new network, they brought in additional groups, including Milk with Dignity, a Vermont group that has created a code of conduct for dairy workers and gotten Ben & Jerry’s to promise that its dairy farmers will comply.
“This is an incredibly powerful new model that we need to raise awareness about,” said Asbed, who won a MacArthur genius award last month. Asbed talked of the importance of lining up consumer support to help persuade image-conscious brands, whether fast-food chains or apparel retailers, to get their producers to embrace and comply with codes of conduct.
Nova told a story of what happens when workers have little power. The day before the Rana Plaza building collapsed in April 2013, workers saw cracks in its pillars and walls, and the building was evacuated. The next morning, hundreds of workers reported to the building, but didn’t want to go to their work stations because they were frightened. But managers warned that they would lose a month’s pay unless they went to work that morning. Within hours, the eight-storey building collapsed and hundreds died.
Nova contrasted that with what recently happened at the Ananta factory building in Bangladesh. Last April, workers discovered cracks in the foundation of that 15-storey building, which held seven factories employing 3,000 workers. The companies agreed to evacuate the building.
On 10 April, after some repairs were made, the factories told the workers to return to work, but they balked – in no rush to trust factory managers after what happened at Rana Plaza. The workers agreed to return to work on 12 April, but only after officials from their union and the Fire and Building Safety Accord certified the Ananta building as safe.
“You know there are parents walking around not dead because of this program,” said Catherine Albisa, executive director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, a supporter of the new network. “There are kids who are not orphans because of this.”