This project is supported by the Ford Foundation but the viewpoints expressed here are explicitly those of the authors. The foundation's support is not tacit endorsement within.
What types of interventions would encourage business leaders and policy makers to prioritise the working conditions of workers? How can workers more effectively participate in shaping the conditions under which they work?
Asia Floor Wage Alliance
Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center
China Labour Bulletin
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Alejandra Ancheita is the founder of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (ProDESC) in Mexico City.
Part of the main purpose of our organisation is to find ways to achieve transnational justice. Our most successful inroad so far has been our RADAR programme. This eight-year-old programme seeks to defend the rights of Mexicans temporarily migrating to the United States under the H2A/H2B visa programme.
The group of workers we collaborate with in Sinaloa, Mexico uses this scheme to work in the seafood industry in Luisiana. We saw that these workers were suffering from a pattern of violations that began with recruiters in their home community and ended on the seafood farms in the United States.
How can civil rights defenders reach across borders to protect migrants?
I think Alejandra is very much onto something when she is trying to figure out how to, for lack of a better word, work in a post-union world. I don’t want to ever admit that there could be such a thing, but the reality is that it’s hard enough being a labour organiser in the United States – in Mexico being in the wrong union can very much get you killed. And unfortunately, companies that want to dodge initiatives like the Fair Food Program are increasingly sourcing from Mexico instead of from the United States.
So in some ways protecting Mexican nationals in the United States means working to protect workers in Mexico. Imbalances here are often created by conditions there. I like the idea of going after the recruiters, like she’s done. The United States and the Mexican authorities have been doing that already with sex trafficking rings that bridge Tlaxclala and Puebla to New York and Atlanta, but have not been as proactive on cases of forced labour. There are some good possibilities with the new Tariff Act authority coming on line over at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (see p. 81). We have to think about ways to have simultaneous litigation in both countries, even if it is through private action as opposed to the government.
The idea is to create a situation where there is nowhere for an abusive grower or buyer to run. If you’re in the United States, you have to expect that the federal prosecutors or civil lawyers are going to come after you, and that folks like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are going to be out in your fields organising. And if you’re on the Mexican side, you have to expect that folks likes Alejandra are also going to be out in your fields, and that your access to the American market will suffer when abuses are uncovered. Those linkages are key, and they haven’t been knit nearly close enough together. That’s an area that funders should really be looking into.
In response, we developed a strategy to try to protect these workers on both sides of the border. On the Mexican side we filed a criminal complaint against the recruiters for fraud. This was the first time recruiters were detained in Mexico, and the first time the authorities recovered and returned money to workers.
They were, however, only part of the problem. These workers were already vulnerable when the recruiters offered them work. Poverty, a lack of opportunities, and violence within their own communities had made them desperate. So desperate that they were willing to pay money just for the promise of being hired.
Their vulnerability travelled with them across the border and was exacerbated by the H2A/H2B visa rules, which tie workers to a single employer. Employers can do whatever they want – demand unpaid overtime, provide sub-standard working conditions, or even keep the workers in captivity – and get away with it. If the workers complain, the employer can have them deported.
For lawyers in the U.S., one of the main challenges in bringing cases is that both the primary employer and the end buyers have the legal excuse of saying they didn't know. That allows them to evade responsibility. In response, we began to send letters of notification documenting abuses to the primary employer and to other actors in the supply chain. With that notification nobody can say they didn't know.
So, what we are offering is information about these violations. The different nodes in the supply chain have the opportunity to change what is happening. If they decide to maintain the same recruiter or to maintain the conditions where the violations were happening, these letters of notification can be used to prove that the primary employer and the other actors in the supply chain were aware of the violations. This is when we can really open up litigation.
Companies don't want to lose money. So while a company might be able to hire a lot of lawyers to defend themselves, it's important to understand that starting litigation with solid proof gives us an opportunity to use social responsibility mechanisms to our advantage. That is the moment when we can argue to investors that products are being produced with human rights violations, and that we can make public all these conditions. That is when you really can have an impact.
Shawna Bader-Blau is Executive Director of Solidarity Center.
There are a couple ways to respond to that. The first one is, most of the fundamental human rights of workers that are abused are abused illegally. We call this things like wage theft. Furthermore, the majority of people who are not paid the wages they are owed are women. This happens in contexts where not being paid the minimum wage is illegal. So, there's a complete lack of will on the part of governments to enforce existing norms and standards. And, at best, companies turn a blind eye to such violations and feign ignorance.
A mass movement of people needs to expose and address this fundamental lawlessness. It's like women in the #MeToo movement. We're globally exposing a lawlessness that has been going on forever, and we're saying, ‘No. You can't just do that’. It's true wild west behaviour in many, many countries. Certainly in the informal economy, where there is no will or interest in protecting rights. You can already see this movement forming. Domestic workers, agricultural workers, construction workers, and others are coming together in creative and powerful ways to address the lawlessness that governs workers' lives.
Why is it important that SEWA is a women's organisation as well as an informal workers' organisation?
When you talk about women in the informal sector, they’re the poorest of the poor. Trade unions bring them together in their fight against poverty. They give voice, and visibility, and validity to the work of informal sector workers. No matter the caste, community, or religion we belong to, under SEWA we come together as people in poverty, as women, and as workers.
When women come together like this it gives them self-confidence in a tremendous way. Out in the world, she may have the know-how, she may have the skills, but she will never be perceived as a worker. When she experiences the camaraderie of other workers, she becomes more confident about her own knowledge and skills. That sets in motion a whole process of transformation, and she becomes better able to take charge of her life and livelihood.
This not only brings about changes in her occupation. The whole family benefits. The community benefits. Because she's now much more informed, she's better able to access government programmes. She's able to advocate for improved work programmes. Step by step she becomes more recognised in her family, in her community, and in her society. For many women, membership in this organisation makes it possible for them to become leaders.
On the demand side, it's important to break silos up. We've dedicated a lot of time at the Solidarity Center to building bridges between labour movements and other social and political movements. There are parts of the world, such as much of Latin America, where that has always happened. But in a lot of the rest of the world it's not common. It's really important that we bring together the feminists of the #MeToo movement with the labour movements that are representing more and more women. There are 75 million women around the world in unions. These are the most powerful women's rights organisations on Earth, from an economic standpoint.
We also need to build bridges between land rights and indigenous peoples movements and labour rights movements. So many people are expelled from their land by big corporations, and then end up migrating for work, usually in lousy conditions. That's intolerable. We have to bridge these kind of movements to make common cause. And the common cause is the reassertion of democracy.
There's no such thing as just a consumer or a worker. On some level we're all citizens. We're owed and deserve fair and decent treatment, and the dignity of democracy. We have the right to not only come together in our workplaces, but to create governments that represent our interests. And that very question of democracy is on the table right now.
We have the huge task of reasserting these fundamental rights as core to democracy and exposing the fact that the concentration of more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands gives those few not only economic power, but massive political power. That political power is exercised increasingly against the interests of the rest of us. In short, economic inequality is a massive democracy issue.
To me, the thing that makes it possible to have worker-led social responsibility is the prospect of a boss going to jail.
Anannya Bhattacharjee is the International Coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance.
We need to understand that business is not one monolithic thing. There is big capital and there is small capital. If we approach all businesses as capital, and have the same approach to all of them, then we won't make the most strategic alliances.
Multinationals have huge power over their global production networks. They use this power to force producers to sign contracts that are essentially only beneficial to the multinationals. The margins for the local supplier are squeezed more and more, and this then affects the welfare of workers locally. As worker organisations we need to be aware of these dynamics, and make our demands logical to the fact that there is big capital and small capital. There are some things we can demand of the suppliers at the local level, and there are some things that can only be delivered by the multinationals.
Unfortunately I doubt that even business sufficiently understands this. As a labour activist I can imagine allying with small capital to counter big capital, and thereby bring benefits to both small capital and labour. However, I think that business at the local level does not often see labour organisations as an ally. Small capital sees itself only as part of the business world. They haven't quite understood or internalised the inequalities, and how in some cases unlikely alliances may actually be beneficial. If we were able to understand each other's perspectives better, and strategise together, then I think we could make an impact.
National governments are turning inward. They're focusing on their national competitiveness in, I would say, a short-sighted way. Governments do not think about their regions collaboratively. For example, as the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, we brought Asian labour into alignment on the issue of a living wage in Asia. We understand that workers in different countries are being divided against each other by making some labour cheaper than others.
National governments could do something similar. It would require governments to come together, just one government acting alone would not work. There are some existing regional alliances out there, of course, but they are not as dynamic or cooperative as one would like. They're split on various levels: politically, historically, etc. We are not seeing enlightened governments at this point, which is extremely unfortunate. Government's policies are nowhere near understanding the need for regional cooperation towards global capital.
Ambassador Luis C.deBaca, of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center, directed the U.S. Office to Monitor/Combat Trafficking in Persons under President Barack Obama.
I certainly don't want to hope for tragedies, but I think that you have to make tragedies mean something. In the United States it was the combination of Thai workers locked in a factory in El Monte, California and deaf Mexican street peddlers in New York that horrified people enough to allow us to get the Trafficking Victims Protection Act through. For the international community it was how horrified they were that women were being auctioned off in the Balkans.
If it wasn’t for the cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay we wouldn't have a slavery way of dealing with human trafficking in the UK. I would rather go back in time and have 23 live Chinese workers make it back to the sand that day. But not being able to do that, I'm going to make sure that their deaths don't go in vain and that we spread that slavery theory across the entire Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, I think that it does take that sort of tragedy. People don't seem to care about baseline worker exploitation. In the Clinton administration, we took the most horrible things of El Monte and the deaf Mexican case and we turned it into the worker exploitation task force. That created a bunch of ways in which we could improve labour enforcement apart from criminal enforcement. Unfortunately, those other methods dropped away after George Bush became president and we returned to relying on criminal prosecutions.
How does the Coalition of Immokalee Workers see its relationship with law enforcement?
In cases of sexual assault, for example, or even extreme cases of slavery, law enforcement still continues to play a critical role. With those kinds of extreme crimes we can't rely solely on resolution within a worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) programme. That results in someone being fired, but crimes of that magnitude need to go to court. They need to be prosecuted. So, even as the WSR model helps prevent those types of crimes from happening, we need law enforcement and the justice system to continue functioning alongside us for when problems occur.
The good news is that with WSR there are fewer crimes to investigate. Preventing abuses from happening is our principle goal, and we know that rates have gone way down. But there's still a lot of work to do. We continue to receive complaints about problems occurring outside of the Fair Food Programme, and in those moments our relationships with law enforcement are critical. We need to be able to refer outside cases, where we don't have the same power as we do within the programme, to law enforcement when we receive those calls.
The bigger point there is that prosecution, while it shouldn’t be the only tool, has a definite role. The success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in driving change in Florida tomato fields comes from being a worker-driven group rather than waiting for the government to bring improvements, but at key times it was the fact of actual enforcement that had a big impact on the growers.
The predator being out there in the forest – in this case the government – has a focusing effect. I think CIW has been very good at saying, ‘WSR, as we do it, might make you uncomfortable. But it's not gonna make you nearly as uncomfortable as having the FBI go through your stuff’. To do that you have to have an FBI that will actually go through their file cabinets. We have that in the United States, but a lot of other countries don't. Critics of the US Trafficking In Persons Report often accuse us of being fixated on prosecutions. Our response is that we're actually not fixated on prosecutions. But we know that if there are no prosecutors on this, and there's no real reason for the companies to worry, they’re not going to worry.
To me, the thing that makes it possible to have worker-led social responsibility is the prospect of a boss going to jail. A boss going to jail, or shipping containers sitting in an impound lot, is a very good way to incentivise a company to pick up the phone and call the workers.
Han Dongfang is the Executive Director of China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong.
As noted in the previous question, the most effective way for workers to participate in shaping the conditions under which they work is by organising in the workplace and engaging in collective bargaining with their employer. Even in China, one of the worst countries for workers’ rights violations, we have seen numerous examples of workers with a common grievance coming together and taking strategic and well-thought-out collective action to force their employer to the bargaining table. It is not only CSR organisations and the media who can improve workers’ rights, but also workers taking the initiative. Worker organising is obviously a time-consuming process, but the results are solid. The strength gained by the workers also stays with them. It doesn’t vanish as soon as the media spotlight switches to another subject.
Isolated collective bargaining experiences cannot be sustained and are difficult to replicate if there is no trade union representation. Our experience in China highlights how important trade union representation is to successfully pushing through worker initiatives, even in a country where worker-led trade unions are still a sensitive topic. Our experience in India shows that workplace collective bargaining is the strongest tie linking trade unions and workers, and is therefore able to create a long term and sustainable solution to the protection of workers’ rights.
Lupe Gonzalo works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
With business leaders, it is important to point out that it is getting increasingly difficult for companies to hide abuse because of increasing levels of transparency worldwide. Because of technology. Because of social media. When abuse happens, even in far away places, we find out about it. That's different than 15 or 20 years ago. It means that consumers can inform themselves about actual conditions on the ground.
A good example of how this can work is what we've done recently with the fast food company Wendy's. We spent years working on a public campaign to educate consumers about the conditions in their supply chain in Mexico. We pushed really hard to convey the reality despite what Wendy's was saying. We combined that with action steps. We were not only telling consumers what was happening, but we gave them ways to help. That combination of educating people and telling them what to do about it really allowed us to make real change.
The United States isn't a good example when it comes to reaching policy makers. Farm workers and domestic workers have been excluded from federal protections since at least the 1930s. At the same time, any politician who knows anything understands that the migrant work force is a fundamental part of the foundation of the economy of this country. Whether it's in hotels, or restaurants, or agricultural fields, we are a part of this economy.
We really have to be talking about how to protect the basic human rights of workers in those jobs. To get there politicians need to recognise that economic contribution, but they also need to see the faces and the families of the workers who are doing these jobs. That means that we as people need to show that to them. We need to show that we exist, and that as immigrants we're doing our part to move the whole country forward. If we hide ourselves no one will ever see us. We have to be willing to go out in public to tell our stories. I hope that in the future that can lead to change.
Translated by Marley Moynahan at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
It may come as a surprise to some to see a contribution from an anti-trafficking organisation. Yet for us at GAATW, trafficking has always been an issue of labour and labour migration. Our efforts to challenge exploitation and trafficking must therefore be grounded in a deep understanding of the world of work. This means taking stock of how and why work has changed globally, identifying the specificities of each sector, and finding ways to enable workers to organise and build alliances.
It has long been clear that trafficking, exploitation, and labour rights violations occur in sectors where women, often migrants or of lower socio-economic status, work. These sectors include domestic work, the sex industry, the garment industry, and agriculture. Each of these comes with particular conditions that enable abuse and exploitation. Domestic work takes place in private homes. Sex work is criminalised and highly stigmatised in most countries. Agriculture and the garment sector are rarely monitored effectively.
We also know that the experiences of women who have been trafficked or exploited in these sectors tend to be very similar. They endure long working hours, unfair wage deductions, physical, psychological, verbal or sexual abuse, control on their movement, confiscation of documents, and so on. The strategies that can reduce exploitation in these sectors are very similar too: stronger and better enforced labour regulations; oversight and accountability of employers; firewalls between labour inspections and immigration; and the ability of workers to organise and bargain collectively. Read on...
Theresa Haas & Penelope Kyritsis
Theresa Haas is Director of Outreach and Education at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network.
Penelope Kyritsis is Outreach and Education Coordinator at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network.
Penelope: I don't see any reason why WSR can't be a policy maker's project. The principles are quite simple. The only barrier I see is finding the right incentive.
Theresa: There's quite often a number of levers that policy makers have to either provide preferences, or block non-WSR participating entities from being able to engage in business. There's no reason why policy makers couldn't require suppliers for public procurement to prioritise or exclusively source from WSR programmes. The same goes for government contractors. Sometimes private developers have to get certain government permits in order to build properties. You could have a system through which policy makers require developers to participate in WSR programmes in order to get the permits.
The bigger issue is about incentivising policy makers to want to make those changes. That’s hard, because policy makers are deeply influenced by business. I think that business, in many ways, constrains policy makers from enacting stricter laws and regulations for workers engaged in any kind of production for public purposes. So a big part of the change does need to happen at the level of the businesses and the brands.
Emily Kenway is senior advisor on human trafficking and labour exploitation at Focus on Labour Exploitation. Until recently she was private sector adviser to the UK’s office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
For policy makers, one of the things that does work is involving business voices in the lobbying effort. Unlikely coalitions of corporate, trade, and civil society organisations do work. Take the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act. Section 54 on transparency in supply chains, weak as it is, exists in part because corporate and investor voices pushed for it. Policymakers listen to businesses and you can't ignore that fact. You have to find a reason why a policy shift would be in the interests of business as well. Part of this is remembering that businesses are made up of people. Who they are can be very important. Take the UK Living Wage accreditation. In cases where campaigners won very large companies over to this wage rate, it was often because they found an internal champion within the company who understands it and wants to do it.
The other tactic that should be used more often is targeting public procurement. Like companies, government also has to consider the reputational risk of its business-style activities, i.e. the products and services it buys. Particularly the current UK government which has a prime minister who seems to want to make anti-slavery her moral legacy. Campaigners could leverage that and push for deep action with actual teeth if they could demonstrate that there is child and slave labour in the government's own supply chains. That's not impossible to demonstrate.
And while transparency is what uncovers that sort of thing, we need to be wary of putting too much faith in it alone. Transparency has become an end in itself, but it is only a means. We need to ask how it is affecting or improving labour rights at the bottom of a supply chain. We shouldn't applaud companies for mapping the first tier of their supply chains. That's really not the point. For transparency to be effective, you use it to first bring issues to light. Then you act to structurally alter the possibility for those same issues to arise again.
It's quite clear from companies' modern slavery statements that this is not happening. The vast majority of even the better ones focus on output activities. They've trained x number of staff or run an educational workshop for y number of suppliers. But they are not focusing on outcomes. What has actually changed? What means this issue isn't going to happen again? They're missing that part of it.
I actually think they are missing that part of it – they are stuck at outputs and can’t fathom outcomes. Most of the time when I meet with supermarkets I mention the Fair Food Program, just to see if people have heard of it. They should have, because it is one of the best examples of worker-led labour rights change out there today. But they usually haven't. They're missing those links and ideas. There is a lot of work for activists, civil society organisations, and trade unions to do in terms of providing alternative models to them.
Political and public debates regarding sex work have intensified and crystalised into two apparently irreconcilable positions. On the one hand, we have calls for the recognition of sex work as work, with the primary goal being the end to criminalisation and legal oppression. On the other, we have the view that prostitution should be regarded as intrinsic violence against women. From this perspective criminalisation – and especially the criminalisation of clients – is an important part of larger efforts to disrupt, decrease, and ultimately abolish prostitution. This debate has important ramifications for efforts to grapple with the future of work, as opposition to the basic notion of sex work as work like any other continues to undercut efforts to improve rights and protections for sex workers.
The abolitionist model of criminalising clients has recently gained considerable ground across Europe. France, Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Northern Ireland have all criminalised the purchase of sex. Israel and other countries are debating similar laws, and Spain officially announced a ‘feminist abolitionist’ government. Despite this negative trend, sex workers continue to self-organise and formulate collective demands against their precariousness and exploitative working conditions. Read on...
Elizabeth Tang is the General Secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation.
This is also our question. I used to organise all types of workers, and now I only organise domestic workers. I see the difference in terms of how to build power.
For other types of workers you focus on building your membership, your internal strength, so that you can strike. I once organised local Coca-Cola workers for a wage increase. We had a single target: the Coca-Cola factory and employer. We were able to mobilise workers to go on strike, and we were able to build up an image that everybody could get behind. It was easy.
In the case of domestic workers it is much trickier. There isn't a single employer, there are many. They are ordinary people. Nice people. Also poor people. So if we target our employers, we are also targeting the community. I'm convinced that getting the public at large to understand us is the key to success. It's harder, because it really involves a change in attitudes and a change in the value system of the population. We need to shift how people look at domestic work. How people look at women. How people look at migrants. We need to shift people's mindsets so that they begin to understand the value of our contribution.
Targeting policy makers is something we have to invest much more in. It's very hard in the beginning. Activists and trade unionists commonly and mistakenly take for granted that people know what they know. Unfortunately our world is not like this. If people are not in your world they really don't know your world. People turn their faces away and don't want to listen. But once you find the opportunity to start talking and people begin to hear you, things start to change.
We've had many successful experiences on this. Here in Hong Kong we recently had a legislator advocate for revisions to our human trafficking law. It's outdated and focuses only on preventing sexual exploitation. It has taken us years, but there are now a few parliament members who understand that exploitation of migrant domestic workers is much more common in Hong Kong than of sex workers.
For migrant workers, it is important to lobby lawmakers in both the country of origin and the country of destination. Most of our members spend probably 80% of their energy on the country of origin. Lobbying the destination country can seem much harder, yet it is as important. In places like Hong Kong domestic workers are indispensable. That gives them bargaining power. They first have to understand this, and then they have to have local support to act on it.
Alison Tate is Director of Economic and Social Policy at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
It's an interesting question to answer, because this really depends on how you see the power dynamics between these different political and financial institutions. There are the policy makers within a government; inter-governmental groups the like G20; international financial institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund that both provide access to capital and dispense policy prescriptions; and powerful business leaders at the head of some of the largest financial entities on the planet.
It’s important to remember that organised labour is an actor as well. An important way to counteract these other forces is by building workers’ power. It's really important. That means ensuring labour market institutions that deliver justice. That labour courts are there to ensure good laws and social protection measures. That rights are actually enforced. That labour inspections work. And that the financial system is working to the benefit of workers. Building these up requires not just good policy, but also political will.
I think many democratic governments around the world are absconding from their responsibility to intervene and make sure that these systems work. Governments are either withdrawing from that responsibility, or not living up to it.
Very few governments are living up to their responsibilities in tackling the kinds of fast-paced developments that we see. When people talk about the future of work and about the fourth industrial revolution there's a lot of fear because of the uncertainty about how quickly those changes are happening in the world of work. But there is also a lack of trust that governments are not living up to their democratic responsibilities.
We are in a moment of the intersection of multiple global crises, of unemployment, underemployment, inequality, of poverty and of climate. Of course people are taking on these challenges in all kinds of creative ways. Not only in the formal economy, but informal workers are also organising into associations and into unions. There are huge numbers of workers who have been excluded from traditional structures, including from trade unions, because their work is informal. Domestic workers have formed unions and global networks. Great examples are in South Africa, Dominican Republic, India. This is also happening in countries like Sweden and Norway and Denmark, where freelance workers are coming together through platform-based organising. They are participating and collectively seeking to access the protections long afforded to formal unions.
Many companies also understand that they need to really look at their own practices. Sometimes the route to that realisation is indirect, such as the need to address climate action. Some companies are now working with workers to design employment plans that go along with carbon emission reduction plans. Changes like that provide new opportunities for unions to organise, to negotiate and to bargain collectively around those conditions.
This project is supported by the Ford Foundation but the viewpoints expressed here are explicitly those of the authors. Our support is not tacit endorsement within. The aim was to highlight new ideas and we hope the result will be a lively and robust dialogue.