Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Roundtable: do we need a binding convention on decent work in global supply chains?

In our first question, respondents debate whether a binding international convention is necessary to ensure labour standards in global supply chains.

27 June 2016
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Ainhoa Barrenechea

Ainhoa Barrenechea is a legal officer for Focus on Labour Exploitation, a UK charity that works to end human trafficking for labour exploitation.

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We do. Sitting on top of global supply chains (GSCs), multinational corporations (MNEs) coordinate complex webs of subsidiaries, subcontractotors, and suppliers. Lead firms choose where they operate and from whom they source, and as a result have a great deal of power within the GSC model. However, traditional legal frameworks have proved insufficient to hold MNEs to account for the abuses taking place in their own supply chains. Victims of severe exploitation – including human rights violations – are often left unprotected, without justice or compensation.


Judy Gearhart

Judy Gearhart is Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a human rights organisation based in Washington DC that advocates for workers rights around the world.

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Our hope for the 2016 International Labour Conference was always that it would lead to an agreement on preparations for drafting a convention on decent work in global supply chains. We believe that this convention should include an obligation for member states to pass laws and regulations which regulate the conduct of their multinational enterprises overseas and which require businesses to perform mandatory due diligence to identify labour rights risks in supply chains.

The convention should also create a permanent dispute settlement facility, housed at the International Labour Organisation, where multinational corporations can be held accountable for breaches in existing standards, including those set by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

In the global export industries that we study – palm oil, cocoa, seafood, cotton, tobacco, and apparel – the international buyers and exporters have disproportionate influence on the price of goods and there are no legal obligations upon them to conduct their business in a socially or environmentally sustainable way. We need legal mechanisms that turn international agreements into enforceable policy changes on the ground, which in turn foster compliance.

Ironically, it is precisely this lack of a legal mechanism that has led many international brands to take voluntary measures to ensure the monitoring of labour rights in their supply chains. But these are dangerously lacking in effectiveness. Often, they mean that a worker’s only access to remedy lies with the local employer or the local courts, which are under pressure to retain the buyers’ interest from year to year. The Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is one notable exception of a legally binding monitoring agreement. However, more are needed.


Shelley Marshall

Shelley Marshall is a senior lecturer at Monash University, Australia. She researches labour law and development and corporate governance and accountability. Her latest book is New Visions for Market Governance: Crisis and Renewal.

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A binding international convention on corporate responsibility for labour standards in global supply chains is desperately needed. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that around 60% of global trade in the real economy depends on the supply chains of 50 corporations, which employ only 6% of workers directly and rely on a hidden workforce of 116 million people. These obscure employment relations mean that labour exploitation is rampant and can flourish un-detected.

Without placing obligations on the real power-holders in global supply chains, nation-states will remain relatively powerless to improve the conditions of workers.

A binding international convention should not only create positive duties for parties within supply chains who may be contractually far removed from workers, but it should also provide a means of bringing claims against supply chain parties such as financiers and buyers. These claims should be possible where sufficient evidence can be shown that business practices undermine the capacity of direct employers or principle contractors to pay workers adequately and provide fair labour conditions, or where there is evidence of these players undermining the capacity of state labour inspectorates to enforce labour standards.


Neha Misra

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Neha Misra is Senior Specialist at the Solidarity Center, a non-profit international worker rights organisation. Prior to this she worked as a senior attorney with the US Department of Justice. Neha serves on the executive board of the International Labour Recruitment Working Group and on the Global Workers Justice Alliance Board of Advisers.

The Solidarity Center works directly with workers on the ground in 60 countries. We share the view of the ILO Workers Committee that this year’s discussion on ‘decent work in global supply chains’ needs to lead to an eventual binding instrument on supply chain governance, decent work, and the fundamental principles and rights at work for all workers, including migrant workers, in global value chains. We have seen all too clearly how the lack of legal protections for workers and built-in impunity for corporations with complicated supply chains lead to exploitive workplaces, dangerous working conditions, denial of democratic rights and entrenched discrimination. That is why we wanted this year’s ILC discussion to begin to define the scope of an instrument that puts workers at the centre of any solution to rectify these wrongs.


Sarah Labowitz

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Sarah Labowitz Sarah Labowitz is a research scholar on business and human rights at NYU Stern School of Business.

I understand the desire for such a convention – we all want clear, enforceable rules that actually improve working conditions in the supply chain. But I don’t think a con-vention will get us there. States are already bound to enforce international labour standards and to protect the rights of their citizens. And treaties and conventions only apply to states, not companies (however powerful companies may be). Clearly we need new, ambitious ways of thinking about governance in the supply chain that pro-vide for more rigorous, consistent application of standards to companies, with conse-quences for non-compliance.

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