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The Art of Using Supply Chains to Defend Worker Rights

The Art of Using Supply Chains to Defend Worker Rights

The Art of Using Supply Chains to Defend Worker Rights

Supply chains have been heavily criticised since the onset of COVID-19, as shortages of PPE and other medical equipment have laid bare the vulnerabilities they create for consumers. But labour and human rights activists were raising the alarm over the dark side of supply chain capitalism well before the current crisis. In many industries, the global brands that sit atop these chains directly employ only a relatively small number of workers. They depend on armies of contractors and subcontractors to actually produce the goods they sell or market. Typically smaller and less profitable than their clients, these suppliers compete for orders from lead firms and frequently, to win them, they must find ways to cut costs. Labour-related costs are almost always their first port of call. This, in a nutshell, is how supply chain capitalism exerts downward pressure on wages and working conditions worldwide.

Recently, legal efforts to address this problem have focused on trying to influence lead firm behaviour. Both ‘hard law’ like the UK Modern Slavery Act and ‘soft law’ projects like the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights rely on lead firm transparency and due diligence requirements to rein in the excesses of supply chain capitalism. Critics of this model frequently note that, beyond reporting, it imposes no substantive obligations on buyer firms. They are not required to improve conditions for suppliers or the workers their suppliers employ. As such, transparency legislation is highly compatible with conventional corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes, which rest on two core principles: voluntarism and unilateralism. Lead firms (or closely aligned third parties such as commercial auditors) decide what standards will be acceptable in their supply chains, when they are being met, and what happens if they are not. Often there are no consequences for suppliers that fail to comply with standards.

The Fair Food Program (FFP), created by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), represents a radically different approach to supply chain regulation. In our contribution to this series, we examine why the FFP works and how it differs from conventional CSR approaches. We also emphasise the conditions that have enabled the FFP not just to succeed, but to expand when so many other labour organisations remain on the defensive. We begin by explaining how the FFP grew out of anti-trafficking work in Florida’s tomato industry, and the realisation that a criminal justice approach to labour trafficking was never going to sufficiently address the root causes of the problem in agricultural supply chains.

Read more here.

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