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WASHINGTON – Voluntary CSR mechanisms are failing to protect workers in apparel supply chains, and a  new, worker-centric model is required  which involves binding agreements between brands and their suppliers. That’s the conclusion of a new paper which examines the struggles of traditional, corporate-led initiatives to address labour violations in supply chains and highlights how a new breed of enforceable brand agreements (EBA) in countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Honduras are showing a more effective way forwards.

The paper, published by the International Labour Rights Forum, looks at why worker exploitation and abuse is still rampant despite years of CSR and other initiatives by brands, NGOs and other players in the global apparel supply chain. It then explores the successes and challenges of three examples — in Indonesia, Honduras, and Bangladesh — of EBAs in the global apparel industry, examining the context in which each was developed and how they address the deficiencies in the traditional CSR approach.

“The persistent exploitation of millions of apparel industry workers, and the failures of corporate social responsibility and multi-stakeholder initiatives to provide effective and sustainable remedy, require a new framework for corporate accountability in order to ensure workers’ rights,” argue the researchers. “A new approach must move away from voluntary codes of conduct, flawed social auditing schemes, and programmes that exclude the agency of workers and their organisations. It requires addressing the root cause of the problem: the unequal balance of power between the corporate actors, who have created — and benefited from — the global supply chain system, and the workers who remain in precarious working conditions and are living in poverty.”

The authors highlight initiatives in Honduras, Indonesia, and Bangladesh which, they say, are distinct from other supply chain monitoring initiatives because “they hold the most powerful actors in the supply chain — brands and retailers — accountable for ensuring reforms are made.”

The paper identifies four elements that initiatives for corporate accountability need to incorporate in order – it claims – to ensure decent working conditions and respect for workers’ rights. These are legally-binding, enforceable commitments for corporations to ensure workers’ rights in their supply chains; meaningful worker representation and involvement in all aspects of initiatives to improve working conditions and advance workers’ rights; transparent disclosure of factories and working conditions; and changes to brands’ sourcing and purchasing practices that contribute to violations.

Comment: While clearly written from a worker-centric, union standpoint, this paper opens up a very interesting debate. While voluntary initiatives by apparel brands and retailers have, arguably, improved things on the ground for some workers in supply chains, even their most ardent supporters would agree their impact has been limited. Indeed, it has often been a case of two steps forwards, three steps backwards.

New models and ideas are needed, and we agree that there needs to be a shift away from being voluntary to binding – perhaps with government legislation leveraged along the way – and from corporate to worker-led. This paper offers an interesting blueprint for such models and is well worth a read. You can see it in full HERE


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