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The impact of supply chain evolutions on workers' rights

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

This is a guest post from Kyle Richard, a third-year law student at the University of Washington.

Supply chains are rapidly evolving in every industry sector, and one of the most vital concerns is how labor standards can continue to be monitored and enforced throughout these evolving organizational structures. The University of Washington explored this topic during a March conference on “The Transformation of Supply Chains” featuring academic experts and leaders from several labor rights organizations, including Central General Trabajadores, Worker Rights Consortium, and the Fair Labor Association (FLA).

The conference focused on three questions: how supply chains have changed over the years, the pressures to evolve, and how—if at all—workers have benefited from these transformations. The event reminded me how important monitoring by organizations like the FLA has been to the development of responsible supply chains, as well as how the role of these organizations have changed over time. While I am optimistic that a collaborative approach will bring continued improvement among multinational corporations, I am concerned that there will always be a "Bangladesh" where meaningful reforms seem difficult to implement. Having the opportunity to hear so many experts speak in Seattle encourages me that these challenges are being addressed in an interdisciplinary manner and makes me confident that continually improving solutions will be developed.

In his presentation, FLA President Auret van Heerden spoke about the improvement of labor standards by the Chinese government and its efforts to create high value added supply chains. Noting that China’s low value added systems such as the garment industry did not create the type of high wage, high skilled jobs that China was seeking, Auret said the country has begun to raise its standards to create better jobs and greater value in its supply chains, including developing labor law provisions and increasing factory wages. Auret also described how countries like Bangladesh have lowered their standards, ostensibly to compete with China in the global market.

Leading labor scholar Richard Locke, Class of 1922 Professor of Political Science and Management at MIT, and Dan Jacoby, a professor in UW’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies, focused their discussion on aligning the interests of all actors in the supply chain, from the brands and companies ordering the products to factory owners, management, and workers on the factory floor. They also described how streamlined and efficient production can generate both higher profits and improve labor conditions throughout the supply chain.

Rachel Taber, Community Education Coordinator for Alta Gracia, and Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Workers' Rights Consortium, joined UW faculty members to discuss the role of labor rights NGOs to improve working conditions. Most presenters shared the view that NGOs could play a more collaborative role by working with factory owners to improve labor conditions, rather than “policing” the supply chain through constant auditing. The expectation is that this would result in improvements in labor and human rights standards from the bottom-up through increased worker empowerment and involvement as well as greater alignment of interests among factory owners and management.

The conference was sponsored by the University of Washington (UW) Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing, with support from the UW president and co-sponsorships from the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, the Evans School of Public Affairs, Foster School of Business, UW School of Law and UW Department of Political Science.

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