An exciting day in Geneva yesterday, as the International Labour Congress concluded. The door has been opened to a future convention making lead firms accountable for cross-border supply chains, something that has bedevilled labour activists for 30 years.
Employers objected on the grounds that existing regulations should resolve this if implemented. Yes they would, but they aren’t being implemented. We could wait forever for that. The ITUC tabled a report pointing out that core labour protections are ignored in more than half of the world’s countries, including the two most populous ones, and in some cases are worsening (something I pointed out last year). It makes more sense to craft a convention aimed at countries that are likely to implement it rather than countries that won’t.
There is also the purist labour objection that distant regulation takes away the local impetus to implement those very standards that allow people to freely associate and form unions (which I unpack here). The risk is that you substitute one form of powerlessness with another. Personally I think it’s okay and maybe even necessary to apply pressure at more than one level. Having a top-down solution does not prevent the development of bottom-up solutions. The alternative is to choose inaction so that the local garment or electronics workforce eventually rises up of its own accord. Well they have been doing that and facing fierce resistance. Also the consequences of inaction are not trifling: disastrous safety and health neglect like the Rana Plaza collapse and invisible but far more widespread problems like silicosis.
I asked the ILO’s Better Work team for their thoughts on this during their Facebook Live chat; you can see their response here (starting at 21’35”):
A binding resolution is still some way off but yesterday may mark a turning point in the history of industrial relations: acknowledgment at the highest level that employment-like responsibility should be attributed up the supply chain. Corporate Social Responsibility has failed to address these problems. The executives sitting in the headquarters of Apple and Samsung should be shifting uneasily in their seats.