Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Voices from the supply chain: an interview with the National Guestworker Alliance

BTS speaks with JJ Rosenbaum of the National Guestworker Alliance on ways to protect workers in global supply chains, including a global minimum wage.

Jennifer Rosenbaum
6 October 2016

BTS: So, JJ, could you tell us why this year’s ILC was particularly important?

JJ: This year the ILC took up the issue of global supply chains for the first time. Global supply chains are increasingly the way that the world economy is organised. So it is fundamental for the ILO to speak about them and to bring a workers’ perspective to the issues that they raise.

BTS: What did you want to see result from this year’s ILC?

JJ: I thought it important that the dialogue this year be a first step towards a broader process of standard setting for working conditions in global supply chains. We know that supply chains involve significant exploitation of migrant workers, of women workers, and of others, and we know that there are problems with wage levels and with freedom of association. So national supply chain standards are no longer enough – what we need is something global.

BTS: But business organisations typically say that voluntary codes of conduct are enough to ensure good working conditions in global supply chains. What would your response to them be?

JJ: My response would be that there’s no harm in trying voluntary codes that but that we know these have not been sufficient and they never will be.

BTS: More generally, businesses claim that supply chains are good for ‘development’, good for workers. Yet we know that workers in supply chains are often poor and exploited. What’s going on there?

JJ: Look, at this point we know that global supply chains are set up so that companies can shop around for the country with the lowest labour costs. And we know that governments feel pressured to concede to this business model in order to bring in foreign direct investment. This is why transnational regulation is fundamental, so that workers at the end of the supply chain are not bearing the brunt of being involved in them.

BTS: From your perspective and the perspective of the workers you work with, what three things would have to change to make decent work possible for workers in global supply chains?

JJ: Well, firstly, there has to be a living wage. Without living wages workers can’t even make it to union meetings, or get by with the most basic sufficiency. Secondly, there has to be freedom of association. Collective bargaining is crucial for workers and for this they need strong worker organisations. And thirdly, particularly from our perspective, we think there have to be protections for migrant workers, who are often especially vulnerable.

BTS: What do you think the ILO’s role should be in the regulation of global supply chains?

JJ: I think the debates at this year’s ILC show the importance of the ILO and the role it can play in the new global economy. I think the ILO is unique in that workers are at the table along with employers and governments. That’s the kind of tripartite dialogue that we need to build an economy that will bring decent work to all workers.

BTS: Finally, JJ, is a global minimum living wage part of the future?

JJ: Definitely. I think this is a critical part of fixing global supply chains, of making sure that workers at the bottom are receiving what they need for a dignified life.

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