How does the Worker Rights Consortium work?
The factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan which killed 262 workers occurred weeks after the factory was deemed safe by Social Accountability International, a corporate-backed monitoring organisation. This tragedy demonstrates just how badly the corporate monitoring system is failing workers worldwide. The Worker Rights Consortium offers an independent, worker-led alternative which answers to workers themselves, not to corporate interests. The Worker Rights Consortium operates on the following three principles:
All companies that supply university members of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) must disclose the locations of their factories. This is stored on their publicly accessible factory database, and shines a light on the hidden practices in company supply chains, exposing any violations of human rights. The WRC monitors all factories in the garment industry that supply universities; in the future, we would like them to monitor other industries as well.
2. Code of Conduct
The suppliers must then sign a Code of Conduct. The Code can be developed by universities themselves and so can change from university to university. The minimum requirements for a Code are that companies supplying universities obey the law in the countries their factories are located in, and obey ratified International Labour Organisation conventions on working conditions and freedom to join a union.
3. Bargaining Power
Unlike many voluntary codes of conduct that companies may chose to adopt, this one has teeth! The economic leverage of university purchasing contracts, when universities join together, acts as a deterrent to exploitative behaviour and a genuine threat to corporations unwilling to take responsibility for conditions in their supply chains.
Why the Worker Rights Consortium?
The WRC is led by a board of academics, students and labour rights experts. It is therefore free of the corporate influence often found in other monitoring bodies. People & Planet recommends the WRC as a credible, honest and open organisation that has been developed particularly for universities.
The WRC bases its reports on what workers in factories actually say. It won’t impose its own views on factory workers: it provides an honest account of what people on the ground feel. The WRC interviews workers away from factory premises, where they are not under pressure to lie.
That means workers also take the lead in how to deal with the problems they face, unlike conventional social audit schemes. If the workers want negotiation, the WRC can mediate between the company and the workers and their union if required. If workers want Northern purchasers or activists to support their cause, WRC reports inform this. The WRC opens up the possibility for real solidarity between students, universities and the people who make our clothes.
Some monitoring bodies are set up by corporations and answer only to vested interests. For instance, when the Fair Labour Association were invited in to investigate Apple’s computer sweatshops, Private Eye reported:
The FLA tends to like what it sees. Created by some of the garment industry’s most powerful companies, it’s still largely funded by them… In recent years the FLA has launched many investigations but found remarkably little to worry about. An inspection of a Nike supplier, for example, failed to uncover the fact that staff had accumulated 600,000 hours of unpaid overtime. In another case, a college T-shirt manufacturer, Gildan, illegally fired dozens of workers for trying to organise a trade union, before shutting the offending plant altogether. The FLA acknowledged that these actions were illegal, but let it stay affiliated as a member anyway.
The WRC is different. With its system of openness and transparency, it is accountable to the people who matter: workers on the ground. They won’t take part in corporate cover-ups and activists won’t let them.
Because of their accountability, factory workers trust them. Maritza Vargas, a trade unionist in the Dominican Republic, has said: “The WRC is the only one that tells the truth.” The WRC is the monitoring body on which we can rely to expose corporate scandals.