How responsible sourcing can save lives

Garment workers suffering at the hands of Myanmar’s military regime are urging Western brands and retailers not to ‘cut and run’. Kate Larsen, Founder of SupplyESChange, explains how to source responsibly in the face of exploitation and abuse.

This weekend brought the shocking news of further assassinations of protesters by the military junta that seized power in Myanmar on February 1.

Garment factory workers, at the forefront of the protests, are under great stress given the violence of the coup. Some protesters paid the ultimate price by losing their lives, not to mention their livelihoods. Factory workers face arrest for peaceful protests.

Burmese garment workers have been reported to be urging international brands to denounce the military coup and pressure factories to protect workers from dismissal or harassment. They argue that instead of ditching suppliers who do their best for workers, brands and retailers have more leverage to influence change and improvement when they stay involved.

Spanish fashion brand Mango not only condemned the coup in Myanmar, but also said it would work with union partners to ensure no reprisals against factory workers.

Meanwhile, our attention has been drawn to Chinese consumers who are boycotting Western brands such as Burberry, H&M and Nike over their claims that they will phase out the use of cotton from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. amid allegations of forced labor.

China’s large size means this problem has significant implications for businesses operating in the country. Nonetheless, retailers and brands have a duty to ensure that there is no violence or abuse in their global clothing supply chains.

Besides posting whistleblowers on websites, sending letters, or having Zoom calls with the management of the supplier factory, how could buyers use their influence?

Emerging business law requires due diligence in monitoring and respecting human rights in global supply chains. This is already in force in France, expected later this year in Germany, and being drafted in Switzerland and at the European Commission. These laws are based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The principles behind all of these standards (which we train on at SupplyESChange) include that companies should engage stakeholders who defend the rights of those affected – from trade unions to human rights charities – to identify suppliers linked to the army and accomplices of atrocities. .

In China, where independent unions are banned, working with unions is not possible, and we have to work with other parties (non-profit organizations and social enterprises focused on the welfare of workers) who have more information on how workers’ rights are respected.

These organizations can be a useful source of information on which supplier factories respect workers’ basic human rights and which do not. In recent years, fashion companies such as Asos, Esprit, Inditex, owner of Zara, and H&M Group have signed global framework agreements with the industrial union federation, agreeing to exchange data to jointly monitor compliance with rights. human rights of workers in supply chains.

Many companies from many industries are trying to share data with unions through the United Kingdom’s (and other European countries’) Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which is a tripartite organization made up of companies. , trade unions and nonprofit / civil society members, and the Fairwear Initiative. from the Netherlands, which also helps companies engage unions appropriately.

In the United States, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) can help companies understand recommendations for influencing remedies (from reinstatement of illegally dismissed workers to urgent safety improvements to wage arrears) through organizations such as the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which often has excellent information on where workers’ rights are respected and not on supply chains in Asia.

Independent worker rights hotlines can also allow workers to report issues such as dismissal or harassment for participating in peaceful protests, or undermined through forced labor, so that buyers can identify and influence risk resolution more quickly. Over the past 15 years, many brands have invested in training their supply chain factory workers in increasingly sophisticated help lines and related monitoring and reporting tools. For example, I helped found the INNO Handshake helpline program in China, which is now global, where workers use Wechat-Weixin and related technologies to learn, get support, and report issues. When done effectively, partnering to bring such tools to workers can provide meaningful ‘beyond the audit’ insight into areas where companies should focus to influence and reward performance improvement. respect for workers’ rights. In the best factories, management valued whether supervisors or others were making transgressions because they wanted to improve retention, which they believed could improve productivity and profitability.

Transparency also has a role to play. Earlier this year, the American Apparel and Footwear Association and other industry organizations called for US federal law to require companies to publish a list of their supplier factories, as do Levi’s, Nike, Adidas and many more. ‘others for many years. Transparency helps stakeholders raise issues more quickly with responsible buyers and away from the media, so they know where to use their influence for workers’ rights, as set out in the UN Guiding Principles. This can help divert spending from public relations and lawyers, to ensure workers are treated and paid properly, livelihoods improve, and operations return to more mature productivity.

Finally, professional associations and, directly, businesses, can support civil society calls to ensure that sanctions and other business tools more effectively influence the end of military violence, respect for democracy and an environment in which people companies respect the fundamental rights of workers and contribute to improvement. means of subsistence. Again, the UN Guiding Principles and emerging legislation urge companies to engage in dialogue with rights-holder stakeholders, to understand how workers need support to have their rights upheld (including their right to life) and report their efforts in a transparent manner.

In summary, many argue that buyers do not flee Myanmar when the going gets tough, but instead listen more to worker representatives around the world, systematically use voices to urge suppliers to respect workers’ rights. workers, to reward suppliers who make good efforts to respect workers ‘rights and workers’ well-being, and speak out collectively to support macroeconomic efforts. Ultimately, our purchases from these countries, when made responsibly, can help improve livelihoods. Buyers are expected, through the emergence of new laws, to engage stakeholders and assess and influence the achievement of respect for human rights.

Kate Larsen is the founder of SupplyESChange, which supports and guides companies in responsible sourcing aligned with new human rights due diligence laws.

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