June 4 2008
ILR holds second seminar on workers' rights and corporate social responsibility
ILR's International Programs in Ithaca and Global Labor Institute in New York City brought top leaders from brand-name firms, worker advocacy groups, and government agencies to the ILR Metropolitan Office May 15-16 for another one-of-a-kind seminar on workers' freedom of association under corporate "codes of conduct" for supplier factories overseas. Accumulating demand for the seminar among brand-names companies, non-governmental organizations, trade unions and government agencies prompted ILR senior lecturer Lance Compa and Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla to reprise the seminar they first put on in May 2005.
Compa explained, "Many U.S.-based firms have developed corporate social responsibility programs and codes of conduct to promote decent working conditions, including clauses on workers' rights to form unions and to bargain collectively. The challenge is how to effectively apply these codes to get real improvements for workers."
"Brand-name firms use internal and external monitors for on-site reviews of factory performance in code compliance," said Kuruvilla. "But qualitative monitoring for workers' organizing and bargaining rights presents challenges far different from monitoring for quantifiable issues like child labor, safety standards and minimum wages. That's why we designed this seminar devoted solely to freedom of association under codes of conduct."
Kuruvilla cited three goals of the seminar: "to clarify our definition and understanding of FOA provisions in codes of conduct; to identify the knowledge and skills needed for effective code application, and how effective application can help make respect for workers' rights a normal business practice, not an occasional bright spot in an otherwise dismal landscape."
In two days of intensive work, officials from Coca-Cola, Nike, Adidas Group, VF Corp., Jones Apparel, Walt Disney Co., Cadbury Chocolates, Walgreens and other brand firms exchanged views and ideas for improving freedom of association practices with representatives of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Human Rights Watch, Oxfam USA, Farmworker Justice, International Labor Rights Forum and other NGOs, alongside multistakeholder groups like Social Accountability International, Fair Labor Association, Transfair USA, and the certified auditing organization CSCC. These private sector groups were joined at the seminar by representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor and the World Bank's International Finance Corporation.
"The diversity of backgrounds and views of participants made the seminar crackle with energy," said Compa. "We didn't resolve every issue, but we made valuable progress on addressing freedom of association under codes of conduct."
Compa said, "It's clear from the enthusiastic response of seminar participants that we're on to something important and that the ILR School has a unique capacity to bring such diverse groups together. Many participants told us that they felt more comfortable speaking freely about these issues in an academic setting provided by ILR."
The seminar examined freedom of association issues in specific countries that stand out in the global supply chain. Kuruvilla and Compa analyzed developments in India and Mexico, respectively. They were joined in country-focused presentations by ILR visiting scholar Bill Taylor, an expert on labor in China and Vietnam; University of Michigan Professor Mary Gallagher, a China expert; and Judy Gearhart of Social Accountability International, who had recently returned from field work in Central America.
Compa added, "With International Programs' research strengths, GLI's reach among global labor actors, and the Extension Division's expertise in training, we are going to have many opportunities to build on this experience with more seminars of this kind, and new ones as well."
Jill Kubit of the Global Labor Institute staff in New York led the planning and event team, assisted by Laura Phillips, a Columbia University graduate student interning at ILR, and by ILR staff associate Jo-Ann Perkins.