Thursday, January 09, 2020

We Need The Unions

As consumers have become more aware of labour abuses, international companies have been forced to scrutinise labour practices at the various factories involved in manufacturing their products. In accordance with laws like the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act and 2010 California Supply Chain Transparency Act, multinational retailers and global brands  have recently publicised modern slavery statements expressing a commitment to addressing forced labour.

But there is a problem. While new laws require businesses to disclose their efforts to address forced labour in their supply chains, they have limited provisions for compliance and enforcement. Furthermore, this model neglects large parts of the global workforce, such as labourers producing goods for the Global South, or service and care sector workers who are not considered members of global commodity chains.

Consumer boycotts, which focuon global supply chains, are also a problem. They have caused some companies to suddenly withdraw their manufacturing contracts with certain factories, or in certain countries altogether, leaving workers to face a unemployment.

These supply chain approaches, while ineffective in resolving the roots of labour exploitation, have become so ubiquitous that they have shifted global attention to focus almost exclusively on the abuse that happens in export-oriented sectors. This may cause concerned Global North citizens, organisations and policymakers to overlook the systemic exploitation that occurs among service sector workers - domestic workers and sex workers, in particular, are often left behind. These are industries in need of consideration in all approaches to end forced labour because they employ mostly women who face global inequality, poverty, lack of labour protection and criminalisation during migration and workDomestic workers, in particular, face some of the greatest risks of coercion and exploitation due to the isolation of their workplaces, and historic devaluing of care work.

A criticism of supply chain approaches is that they  obscure the importance of building worker power to counteract these forces. Worker-led efforts, rather than corporate or consumer-led ones, shift the focus to the ideas, needs and collective action of the workers themselves. Worker organising, both through and alongside trade unions, is pivotal to achieving freedom of association and collective bargaining. Worker organising strategies reframe relationships of power and authority and lessen the risk of exploitation. Their successes show that the problems that exist within a supply chain, especially with regards to exploitation and accountability, would be best addressed if we turn more of the power over to workers instead of governments, corporations and consumers.

The tendency to exclude worker organising as an approach to combat exploitation is not for a lack of effective models. This past autumn, thousands of Myanmar garment workers throughout the country went on strike at nearly a dozen factories demanding provisions for leave, holidays and overtime pay as stipulated by Myanmar's labour laws. Many of these labour struggles are ongoing as factories have been reluctant to meet worker demands. In September, a thousand workers participated in a sit-in organised at a Chinese-owned factory that produced clothing for Zara and Holly & Whyte. The strike ended when employers agreed to strikers' demands. However, seven labour activists still face charges from the government for unlawful assembly.

Global supply chain initiatives that fail to include worker-led empowerment and organising are inevitably limited in their scope and ability to achieve permanent and comprehensive solutions to the widespread scourge of labour coercion and abuse. Prioritising investment in worker capacity to organise collectively to combat exploitation is critical to securing social and economic justice that leaves no one behind.

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