June 25, 2019

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The Lesson of Rana Plaza For CSR: Worker Empowerment The Key To Safety?

After Rana Plaza, it’s no longer tenable to pretend that CSR in the supply chain of global corporations is possible without real worker empowerment.

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 by Francesca Rheannon 

It's rare to have something good to report on Bangladesh, but it happened on May 13th.

That’s the day the global garment industry began to wake up to its collective responsibility to make sure that something like the Rana Plaza building collapse in Savar -- and the Tazreen factory fire before it -- never happens again in Bangladesh.

First to get the ball rolling was H&M, the largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh, responding to a mounting chorus of pressure. Spanish firm Inditex (parent company of Zara) quickly followed. Other firms soon fell into line; among them, Primark and Benetton, which also responded to public pressure to sign. Only two American retailers were among the group, PVH and Abercrombie & Fitch.

As the May 15th deadline drew to a close, 32 garment retailers had answered the call to enter into an accord with NGOs, trade unions and the government of Bangladesh to substantially improve safety conditions in the factories supplying their goods.

Terms Of The Accord Rejected By American Firms

The terms of the accord include inspections by independent auditors, public reporting of the findings and mandatory fire and building safety reforms, paid for by the retailers. In addition, the firms are required to cut off business with any factory that refuses, or is unable, to correct the hazards.

Not least, the pact empowers workers and unions to be part of the process, with union-led worker training and worker-led health and safety committees. In addition, workers will have the right to H&Mrefuse dangerous work, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. The accord is legally binding.

And that’s what stuck in the craw of most of the major American retailers, which refused to sign on.

Gap, which has been praised for its previous work to ameliorate factory conditions in Bangladesh, came under extraordinary public pressure to sign the Savar Accord. In an attempt to make the agreement more palatable, the company tried to strip out the language mandating binding arbitration with the unions.

But the move prompted a firestorm of condemnation and, rather than backing down, Gap backed out of the deal. Garret Strain of the group United Students Against Sweatshops -- which carried out a online petition urging Gap to sign garnering more than a million signatures – tartly noted to CSRwire:

“if Gap actually believed in social responsibility why wouldn’t they agree [to mandatory controls]?” 

Wal-Mart, and J.C. Penny, along with all other major American retailers refused to the sign the Accord, objecting to the binding nature of the agreement and the level of power granted the unions. 

NGOs Fall Down On Monitoring

So, why is it so important for the unions to have an equal place at the table? Why can’t the companies rely on NGO partners that they’ve been working with all along to carry out reforms in the factories? 

Verité founder Heather White wrote in a recent post that the NGO’s have compromised their monitoring function by entering into confidentiality agreements with the companies, rendering the process nontransparent and allowing the retailers to escape true accountability. She told CSRwire:

“The role the NGOs have been playing has not succeeded in preventing these devastating fires. These factories have been monitored many times -- and millions of dollars are being spent on these social audits by the companies without resulting in any positive changes"

White says the unions’ participation in the Accord was a key new step:

"When you get the unions involved, I'd be very surprised if they'd be willing to sign nondisclosure agreements and make the entire process nontransparent. Normally when the unions get involved, things have to be quite a bit more open so that they can share information with their networks and allies.”

Without independent unions empowered to make them accountable, any plans by U.S. retailers to improve conditions for workers in their supply chains would be virtually unenforceable.

Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights

Workplace health and safety is a core human right – as basic as the right to life, as we understand when we contemplate the terrible toll of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen disasters in Bangladesh.

It brings along with it all the rights workers need to ensure their health and safety: the “right to know” about the hazards they face on the job, the “right to refuse” to work under hazardous conditions, and the right to seek redress of harm without risking retaliation. Those rights lead in turn directly back to the right to organize unions, because without them, workers have no real power to improve their conditions.  

CSR Tends To Silence On Union Rights

In the years since I started to write about CSR, I have seldom heard the right of workers to organize activistsin strong independent unions mentioned in polite company. To me, the omission has been glaring; I spent nearly 20 years working with unions as an advocate for health and safety on the job, training workers and providing emergency assistance.

I cut my teeth in the occupational health movement under the tutelage of the man who wrote much of the OSHAct, the great union organizer and environmentalist, OCAW Legislative Director Tony Mazzochi. Back before Reagan de-fanged American Labor by firing striking PATCO air traffic controllers, I wrote a study for OSHA about worker health and safety education programs in the U.S. I compared worker-led programs with those led by employers and universities.

The result: worker-led programs were by far the most effective, because they empowered workers to understand the real hazards they confronted every day, to establish union health and safety committees that could go head-to-head with management and to engage in collective bargaining with the company over workplace conditions. 

Real health and safety on the job means that workers share power over the conditions of their labor with their employers. That is why so many companies loathe the idea of robust unions. It is also why The Gap and Wal-Mart refuse to join the accord. Management resents any encroachment on its control – even when it otherwise commits to CSR.

But after Rana Plaza, it’s no longer tenable to pretend that CSR in the supply chain of global corporations is possible without real worker empowerment. 

The Savar Accord & The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

If its promises are fulfilled, though, the Accord will be a huge step forward for worker rights.

And it will be a laboratory for the real world implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, developed by John Ruggie of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The Guiding Principles lay out three areas of concern: responsibilities of states, of corporations, and access to remedies for negative impacts caused by business operations.

As David Schilling of the faith-based investor organization ICCR explained to CSRwire:

"Under the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights, it is the state's duty to protect the human rights of its citizens, including the actions of external parties; that includes companies. In Bangladesh, there have been huge challenges because, as the industry has grown rapidly, basic workplace human rights have not been fully respected. Clearly the government of Bangladesh has not enforced the laws on the books related to workplace human rights and in many instances has been hostile to the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively"

In addition to the state’s responsibility for safeguarding the human rights of its citizens, the Guiding workers rightsPrinciples establish the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. That involves “putting into place serious human rights due diligence to assess the impacts that companies have in their operations and supply chains on the full range of human rights,” including workplace human rights, Schilling says, with ILO standards part of the process.

The third pillar of the UN Guiding Principles focuses on access to remedies to correct and compensate for the harm caused by business operations. The principle says:

Having effective grievance mechanisms in place is crucial in upholding the first two UNGP. The UNGP dictate that non-judicial mechanisms, whether state-based or independent, should be legitimate, accessible, predictable, rights-compatible, equitable, and transparent. Similarly, Company-level mechanisms are encouraged to operate through dialogue and engagement rather than with the company acting as the adjudicator of its own actions [emphasis added.]

Investors Call For Systemic Change, Worker Rights

In their response to the Rana Plaza disaster, Gap, Wal-Mart and the other U.S. companies are still trying to be “the adjudicators of their own actions,” rather than allowing “predictable” and “transparent” – as well as legally accountable – mechanisms to be put in place to assure workers’ rights. In this, they are swimming against the stream.

But as the groundswell of support for Bangladeshi workers grows, investors are taking note – and joining.

On Tuesday, May 21st, an “investor statement on Bangladesh” will be formally announced, signed by 123 investor “companies and stakeholders” representing more than $1.2 trillion in assets. According to an email from ICCR member Rev. Séamus P. Finn of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the statement calls “on industry leaders to implement systemic reforms that will ensure worker safety and welfare, and to adopt zero tolerance policies on global supply chain abuses.”

It is tragic that it took such a horrendous loss of life to finally put the issue of worker rights on the table. But if it leads to an honest and open discussion of what is needed to safeguard those rights – empowering workers – then those lives will not have been lost in vain.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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