As part of our thought leadership program GBL Access, our Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer Anant Ahuja, had a conversation with Katrina Gordon, Program Manager at Humanity United (HU), about their work with global supply chains in fighting forced labor, labor exploitation and unsafe migration and insights about them.
Humanity United’s work and focus areas
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines forced labor as "all work or service extracted from any person under the threat of a penalty, and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” The kind of labor exploitation and forced labor that HU focuses on eliminating is when it happens legally. An example of unsafe migration is when individuals pay someone (or an agency) to get a job in another city or country, and then would go into debt for many years because of that.
Gordon started the conversation by outlining HU’s latest strategy which focuses on three leverage areas and explaining the reasoning behind choosing to focus on those. First is safer migration, because “if we can expand access to safer labor migration pathways for workers, we can start to reform the precarious experience of migration and reduce migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.” Second is worker agency and new forms of labor organizing, because “if we support workers ability to organize and act collectively then we can shift existing power dynamics towards greater agency for workers and decrease worker vulnerability to exploitation.” The last is corporate accountability, based on the hypothesis that “if we cultivate the conditions for stakeholders to hold corporations accountable for fair labor practices, then corporations will institute a new standard of corporate supply chain practice that really demonstrates greater corporate accountability for labor exploitation.”
Explaining the systems approach that HU takes to working on these issues, Gordon revealed that they work with a variety of actors including non-profits, social enterprises, and alliances that could help them engage with companies, workers, and policy makers who play a role in changing the conditions which enable forced labor in private economies. Their contribution could be financial (such as offering grants) or non-financial (such as advisory services, or forging a partnership between two parties). And there is a guiding star to all of this work they undertake, Gordon informed: “transformed labor systems that are safe and fair for the most vulnerable workers.”
Increased importance after the pandemic
This area of the organization’s work has assumed further importance especially after the pandemic presented a range of new challenges, which Gordon and Ahuja outlined to include brands cancelling orders or buying at hugely discounted rates, firms withholding wages or taking longer to pay their workers, forced overtime work, factories shutting down and illegally opening back up, migration of workforce halted or moved to more informal channels. These misfortunes may have presented a powerful learning opportunity, as Gordon informs: “it's been nice to be able to have different kinds of actors like business or companies say ‘we want to know what's coming from where and how it was produced’ in a way that hasn't happened before.”
HU and other organizations working towards securing labor rights and welfare have used this chance to talk about the businesses with good labor practices as examples in their advocacy. Similarly, Gordon shared that many of the tools dedicated to transparency—which inform brands about the health and safety standards and working conditions of the bottomline workers—saw an increase in demand after the pandemic. “It's such an interesting thing to come out of this really challenging situation but really hoping to have that transformation and evolution of the industry,” she noted.
A promising future for labor welfare
She then delved into the details about the area of work that excited her most: discovering innovative methods of worker organizing or transnational organizing favourable to labor rights. To explain this, she took the example of the Worker Rights Consortium, one of HU’s grantees overseeing “a new binding mechanism” in five factories covering 10,000 workers, to reduce the prevalence of gender based violence and harassment in the garment industry. “We find that methodology particularly interesting, given the insufficiency of existing codes of conduct and voluntary commitments to achieve those outcomes for workers,” Gordon shared.
Such binding agreements could look like The Bangladesh Accord, an agreement signed by global apparel brands, suppliers (local manufacturing firms), a coalition of major trade unions and local nonprofits to ensure fire and building safety in the country’s garment industry. “So, through the establishment of an independent monitoring body, unions and worker representatives will continuously monitor the implementation and outcomes of the program,” Gordon elaborated. Including legal stipulations for non-compliance and involving local NGOs, these agreements provide a better alternative to existing ineffective monitoring mechanisms which include “a cottage industry of auditors which has popped up, and is so easily manipulated,” she added. HU hopes to take the learnings from such binding agreements that work and apply it to either other regions or industries.