Worker-driven Social Responsibility represents a new paradigm for protecting human rights in global supply chains, one designed, monitored, and enforced by the very workers whose rights it is intended to protect. This approach is not driven by philosophical or ideological commitment to particular tenets, but rather by functional necessity. It includes five key elements:
- Workers at the Head of the Table: Workers are the only actors in the supply chain with a vital and abiding interest in ensuring that their human rights are protected. Further, given that workers by definition are always present when human rights abuses occur, they know with painful precision how those abuses operate and so have the ability to construct systems that actually ensure that their rights are effectively protected. The WSR model leverages workers’ unique interests and perspectives by putting workers and their organizations, whether labor unions or other organizational forms, at the head of the table in the creation and implementation of the standards intended to improve their own workplaces. This places WSR in stark contrast to traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSI) schemes on several levels.
- Worker-defined Standards or Codes of Conduct: The contrast begins with how the problem to be solved is defined. While traditional social responsibility models are often a reaction to the public relations crises caused by gross human rights violations, WSR aims to address – and eliminate – the human rights violations themselves. Consequently, most traditional corporate codes of conduct are elaborate dead letters, crafted to appear comprehensive in their protections but lacking the specificity and oversight mechanisms necessary to effectively address workplace abuses. In WSR, on the other hand, workers and their organizations design industry specific codes of conduct aimed at eliminating forms of abuse, exploitation and humiliation that workers have experienced for generations, but that no outside “expert” could ever envision from afar.
- Worker-to-Worker Education; Complaint Resolution Mechanisms; Comprehensive Inspections: Unlike CSR and MSI models, WSR does not rely on periodic and perfunctory audits as the primary monitoring mechanism. The WSR approach does include regular and comprehensive inspections by independent monitors, but those audits only serve to complement the model’s principal, worker-driven monitoring process, which combines in-depth worker education with a complaint resolution mechanism that workers can access at all times without fear of retaliation. This allows workers to serve as an additional army of on-the-ground monitors, frontline defenders of their own rights, whose input through their complaints helps weed out the practices leading to human rights violations. To achieve long-term change, workers must have the right to speak out about violations, and to organize as they choose, without fear of retaliation.
- Enforcement-focused; Binding Legal Agreements: Perhaps the most important distinction between WSR and traditional social responsibility models, however, is that companies’ commitments to WSR are legally-binding and enforceable, while traditional models are voluntary and lack a meaningful enforcement mechanism. In WSR there are clear, strict, legally enforceable agreements between workers and corporate buyers at the top of the supply chain that require buyers to suspend purchases from suppliers that commit violations so severe as to be considered “zero-tolerance” offenses or fail to rectify violations within a defined period of time. Thus, the WSR approach is premised on real market consequences for violations of workers’ rights. Unlike most corporate responsibility programs which prioritize getting goods to market smoothly and without interruption, WSR sends an unmistakable message to suppliers that protecting human rights in supply operations is a central and non-negotiable priority.
- Locating Economic Responsibility at the Top: WSR also requires corporate buyers to pay a price premium on top of regular purchase prices to address sub-poverty wages and mitigate increased costs to suppliers that result from compliance with the programs’ strict human rights standards. In this way, WSR addresses both the downward pressure on working conditions that degrades the labor context for workers at the bottom of supply chains, and the concentration of purchasing power at the top that squeezes suppliers.
In the shrinking world of increasingly globalized markets, low-wage workers at the base of corporate supply chains remain isolated, vulnerable, exploited, and abused. These workers manufacture our cell phones, assemble our clothes, and pick our fruit, yet they struggle to survive in a global economy where the drive for lower costs from ever larger retail corporations is translated into ever stronger downward pressure on wages and working conditions in their suppliers’ operations. The result has been a spiraling human rights crisis that has come to a head in recent years for tens of millions of the world’s poorest workers. Horrific factory fires in Bangladesh, modern-day slavery prosecutions in Florida, and human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry are just a few of the most recent headlines documenting this growing concern.
Corporations have addressed this challenge as a public relations crisis, instituting voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs based on minimalist vendor codes of conduct with little or no capacity for enforcement. These programs have served as firewalls for the corporate brand when outrageous human rights violations occur, but have rarely, if ever, led to concrete change in workers’ lives or eliminated abuses. Multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have sought to address the shortcomings in the traditional CSR model by bringing NGOs and other institutions into standard-setting and monitoring roles. While they have been successful in setting higher standards and shifting expectations, MSIs have generally failed to secure the commitment necessary to implement sustainable change. This has been reflected in the lack of effective monitoring and—more tragically—enforcement in most MSI efforts. Examples of such failures of the MSI approach include two factories in the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh that collapsed in 2013, killing over 1,100 workers, that had been inspected and certified as “safe” by an MSI monitor; and the two U.S. farms on which workers had been forced to work against their will, resulting in the conviction of two farm bosses on forced labor charges in 2008, that had been certified “socially accountable” by an industry-controlled MSI.
Yes, there are currently two successful examples of WSR:
Fair Food Program (FFP): The FFP was the first comprehensive, fully functional model of the new Worker-driven Social Responsibility paradigm. It brings farmworkers together with growers, retail food companies and consumers in a genuine partnership to improve wages and enforce dignified labor standards in agriculture, breaking the isolation of workers that has allowed abuses to go largely unchecked for generations. In 2010, the program went into effect in over 90% of Florida’s $650 million tomato industry and in just four short years, it succeeded in eliminating slavery, sexual assault, and violence against workers in Florida’s tomato industry. Less extreme abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations have become the rare exception rather than the rule, and when they do occur, workers have access to a protected complaint investigation and resolution program that is expeditious and effective. The program, which today has expanded to operate in seven states and three crops, is jointly monitored and enforced by a worker-based human rights organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and an independent third party monitor created specifically for that purpose, the Fair Food Standards Council. The FFP received a Presidential Medal in 2015 for its unique success in combatting modern-day slavery and has been recognized by human rights observers from former President Jimmy Carter to the United Nations.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh: The Accord is a ground-breaking, worker-enforced program to make garment factories in Bangladesh safe. The program grew out of years of effort by worker organizations in Bangladesh, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), Clean Clothes Campaign, the International Labor Rights Forum and allied groups to address a catastrophic building safety crisis in Bangladesh. Reckless practices by factory owners, the Bangladesh government, and Western brands and retailers led to dozens of deadly fires and building collapses, killing and injuring thousands of garment workers. Launched in 2013, the Accord now has more than 200 apparel brand and retailer signatories and covers more than 1,600 apparel factories employing more than two-and-a-half million workers. Under the agreement, signatory brands and retailers must require their supplier factories to undergo independent inspections by qualified safety engineers, are obligated to provide financial support so that factories can afford to make the renovations and repairs mandated by those inspections, and must stop doing business with any supplier that refuses to carry out renovations and operate safely. The Accord has had a profound impact on the Bangladesh garment sector, with the implementation of hundreds of millions of dollars in factory renovations – such as installation of fire doors, reinforcement of dangerously weak structural columns, and replacement of haphazard electrical wiring with safe systems. As of the 4th anniversary of the agreement, nearly 89% of all hazards identified in the original round of inspections have been reported or verified as corrected. While there is still a great deal of work to do, millions of garment workers now work in safer factories. In 2017, the agreement was renewed for an additional three years, with an option for further extension.
Given the failure of CSR schemes and MSIs to prevent and correct human rights abuses in supply chains, WSR is the only existing model with the potential to afford protection around the globe for the most vulnerable and often lowest-wage workers. A multi-disciplinary WSR Network was founded in 2015 to develop and implement a strategy to expand the model into other sectors and locations. The Network aims to build understanding of the WSR model among a wide range of relevant actors, provide support for efforts to replicate the model, and provide evaluation and feedback on implementation.
Creators, practitioners and proponents of the WSR model lead the Network. The Network’s founding members include the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Fair Food Standards Council, Migrant Justice, the National Economic and Social Right Initiative, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and the Worker Rights Consortium. The Network’s core functions include:
- Learning platforms and tools: The Collaborative will create online and in-person learning platforms and tools on effective advocacy and implementation of the WSR model, including exchanges, convenings, assessment frameworks, best practices, lessons learned and analysis.
- Strategic and technical assistance: The Collaborative will provide support for workers’ rights groups, NGOs, and businesses in adapting and implementing the WSR model in new locations and industries.
- Field-wide coordination: Moving the corporate accountability/responsibility field towards an effective model such as WSR requires significant outreach, education and coordination. The Collaborative will provide support and guidance for WSR efforts to develop in a coordinated fashion rather than at cross-purposes. It will also map opportunities to expand the model, to develop sustainable funding streams for implementation, generate information-sharing across efforts, and provide a vehicle for collective strategizing.
- Promotion: The Collaborative will also promote the WSR model through media work, publishing, and coordinated public presentations. As part of this effort, the collaborative will also build a critique of the structural flaws in traditional social responsibility models, and work to ensure that the new paradigm for human rights in supply chains is firmly grounded in WSR principles.
One of the Network’s primary goals is to provide technical assistance to organizations that are interested in adopting the WSR model. If you are interested in working with the Network to develop a WSR program, please contact our Director of Strategic Partnerships, Sean Sellers, at email@example.com. Even if you’re not sure whether WSR is the right approach for your organization or workplace but are interested in learning more, please feel free to contact us. We have also drafted a series of concept briefs, available here (hyperlink to Concept Briefs page), that outline several of the most important elements in building and implementing the model. We should caution, however, that these briefs are very general in nature and should primarily serve as the jumping off point for a conversation, not as the sole basis of a WSR program.
The Network does not currently offer a membership option. However, we are working to develop a membership program. Please check back later or sign up for our newsletter to be notified when this program launches.
Consumers can support the growth of the WSR model both through informed purchases from existing WSR programs and by demanding that retailers join WSR programs where available.
We think it is critical to continue to build a base of academic knowledge about the success of WSR, and the failure of CSR/MSIs. To see what resources already exist, please visit our Resource Archive. We would be happy to talk with you about your research plan and discuss possibilities for collaboration. For more information, please contact our Director of Outreach and Education, Theresa Haas, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yes, please send media inquiries to our Director of Outreach and Education, Theresa Haas, at email@example.com. For background, please see our Toolkit for Journalists.
Frequently, analysis of social responsibility schemes focuses on standard setting. Greater focus should be given to the topics of implementation, enforcement, and outcomes—that is, how the articulated standards translate into change on the ground.