Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Voices from the supply chain: an interview with Warehouse Workers for Justice

BTS speaks with Mark Meinster of Warehouse Workers for Justice on how supply chains affect workers in the global north, as well as on the need for solidarity between workers the world over.

Mark Meinster
31 August 2016

BTS: Hi Mark, thanks for joining us. Can we begin by asking you to tell us what your goals were for this year’s International Labour Conference (ILC)?

MM: Well, from a labour perspective, obviously the key long-term goal is a binding convention on decent work in global supply chains. We knew going in to this year’s ILC that a convention was a long way off and so our central objective was to open enough political space – especially among government representatives keen to see supply chain accountability – to begin that process. And we succeeded with that.

When companies become this large and this dominant, you need to regulate them. And that regulation can’t happen only on a national basis.

BTS: And with that success, what is your hope for post-ILC worker mobilisation?

MM: Well, I think one of the main things that has to happen is for us to build campaigns that are explicit supply chains campaigns, targeting specific brands, and linking workers in both supplier and buyer countries. For us at WWJ, for example, we represent workers who distribute products mostly manufactured in Asia and we think that a key step will be bringing these workers in the global north together with those in the global south to push towards a convention.

BTS: And can you explain to people less familiar with the issues why a convention would be so important?

MM: Well to step back a second, we’ve got to realise that the first key problem with supply chains is their lack of accountability. All the major firms want to stick with voluntary codes of conduct, they want to see voluntary global standards. And these standards are all well and good – every company should have them. But the reality is that only binding international enforcement can hold lead firms legally accountable for labour violations that occur in their supply chains. So a binding ILO convention is one tool that can help buying countries build legislation that will hold their multinational lead firms accountable.

BTS: Businesses of course argue that that’s the job of supplier country governments, that they should be responsible for labour standards, not lead firms or home country governments. What would your response be to that?

MM: You know, in my view, the reality is that when companies become this large and this dominant, you need to regulate them. And that regulation can’t happen only on a national basis. We have a situation right now where all we’ve got is national legislation and what you see are countries competing against each other to provide the cheapest labour and the most ‘favourable’ regulatory environment. Without a global legal structure to enforce real supply chain accountability, there is no way to effectively regulate supply chains.

This is about willingness, not ability or understanding.

BTS: And what do you think will be some of the key elements of effective supply chain regulation?

MM: Well, for us, one of the big issues will be freedom of association. We think collective bargaining is ultimately the best way to ensure that standards are enforced. Poor states are unlikely to have enough money to pay enough government inspectors to inspect every piece of every agreement. But if workers are trained to do these inspections and enforce these standards themselves, and if they have the protection of a union contract, then standards will inevitably start to be respected. So, for us, a key element will be protection for freedom of association and some structure that allows for collective bargaining not only with the direct employer but with the lead firm.

Another key element will be a mechanism linking the lead firm to every element of its supply chain in a manner that ensures its legal accountability. Ideally, this would happen globally. But even in the absence of a global mechanism, we can see major countries nationally holding their top firms accountable. For instance, we could see the US government hold Walmart accountable for its supplier factories in Bangladesh.

BTS: So the key, ultimately, is some form of extra-territorial power?

MM: Right. It’s simple – a standard saying,‘if you want to operate in the United States, you have to operate according to global minimum standards. You can choose not to operate in the United States if you want to avoid those standards, but you can’t operate here’. The wider we spread that, the more workers will be protected. And an ILO convention will be key to ensuring this.

BTS: Of course employers say very different things to this, right? They say ‘no, we need more research on supply chains first’. How do you respond to that?

MM: Employers always say that – I’ve been a union negotiator for 20 years and that’s usually what we hear from them. The reality is that employers manage their supply chains with such immense specificity that there is no way they don’t know what violations are happening. Big retailers in fact compete on the basis of how effective and efficient their supply chain management is. So if you say that some large retailer doesn’t have the research knowledge or capacity to properly ensure good supply chain standards, then it’s just not true. This is about willingness, not ability or understanding.

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