Taking up the challenge of forced labour in global supply chains was both bold and ambitious and sends a signal about how serious the approach is.
As the joint CGF effort continues to build momentum, it can again prove that voluntary private sector initiatives can effectively defend and support human rights and promote decent work in the globalised economy. As a member of the Advisory Board, I am pleased that GSCP was given the task of initiating and helping to launch this work. It illustrates the success of our common initiative.
When I was first invited to bring the trade unions into the GSCP, this newly formed sustainability platform, my first reaction was to ask myself if we would really be able to wield an influence, or just be there to support business interests?
My view was – and still is – that employers and unions in developed countries cannot act out on labour conflicts at the expense of workers and their families in supplier regions. This would be both immoral and unethical. We have a shared responsibility for supporting human rights and decent working conditions in countries that cannot or will not do it on their own.
My own Nordic social dialogue and partnership orientation and good experiences from working with many of the GSCP founder multinationals helped to convince me that we should join. I was pleased and even impressed that the UNI Commerce unions, whom I represented at that time, agreed with me and decided that we would set out on this joint voyage.
Thus I was actually not surprised that our work on the GSCP Reference Code as well as the other parts of the unique GSCP sustainability toolbox proved to be very smooth. There was always a genuine will from both business and civil society representatives to find the best and most effective way to define what good looks like, and how this can best be promoted in the global supply chains.
Today the labour relations climate is harder. Instead of sharing the results of growth, employers and unions have to deal with paying the costs of shrinking economies. This has also affected sustainability work.
Global unions have downgraded or even ended their participation in many schemes and initiatives. They are openly questioning whether social audits and voluntary programmes bring results, calling for more legislation instead. Business on its part wants to stick as far as possible to voluntary action.
At the ILO International Labour Conference in June this year we could see the divides. At the end it was, however, agreed that discussions about a possible new Convention continue. Maybe a new Convention would indeed be needed and a reasonable consensus sought between governments, employers and unions about its role and contents.
Many trade union and advocacy organisations hope that the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights would be applied also through binding legislation in the home countries of buyer companies. I doubt that we will see this happen. There could be unwanted negative consequences that threaten to turn such legislation against its own good intentions. I am convinced that respecting the UN and OECD due diligence obligations will continue to rely largely on voluntary corporate responsibility schemes and initiatives. GSCP will have to continue to play a central role in securing their effectiveness, seriousness, credibility and broad acceptance.
Buyer companies and sustainability schemes have done much to support human rights and decent working conditions in global supply chains. The GSCP has played a major role in moving emphasis from audit reports to improving labour conditions. Both capacity building and remediation has grown, most of it enabled by the buyer community.
Social auditing continues to be an essential part of this work. Without a stringent system of third party verification it will be difficult to convince that voluntary schemes and initiatives play their role correctly. The GSCP has done much to support the auditing industry in its efforts to secure audit quality and reliability and this work now continues in the new Association of Professional Social Compliance Auditors (APSCA). I have joined the APSCA Stakeholder Board together with representatives of some of the CGF member companies, a further sign of these links.
Very much is already being done, but regrettably much of it outside the public eye. While brands and retailers are very skilled in marketing their products they are much less active in telling about their own sustainability work. Here, both the CGF and GSCP should pay much attention to transparency and reporting. The work to eradicate forced labour will give a good opportunity to do this and thus also draw attention to the need for broad public-private cooperation to defend human rights at work.
Approaching the forced labour issues through joint activities does not mean that the CGF, GSCP or member companies would abandon the rest of their agenda. Driving convergence of social sustainability work at a high and demanding level remains essential if we want real and positive changes to take place in the supply chains. This will require a new and more concrete engagement also by the business community in major consumer regions. The CGF commitment to eradicate forced labour could and should show the way.