New Conversations Project: 2nd Advisory Board Meeting

By Stephen D'Angelo

The second meeting of ILR’s New Conversations Project focused on defining a framework that would drive the project forward.

The project’s purpose is to promote a dialogue between multiple stakeholders, anchored by research, in order to find pathways to more sustainable labor practices in global supply chains, particularly in the garment sector.

Led by Anna Burger, executive director and former SEIU officer, and Bruce Raynor ’72, board chairman and a former president of Workers United, the project’s advisory board is made up of a diverse group of stakeholders from the business, labor, non-governmental organizations and academic sectors. From a range of perspectives, advisers at the Washington, D.C., meeting in February provided thoughts on the attraction of the project, its uniqueness and potential influence on policy.

What attracted you to the project?

A large part of it was to bring the student voice. I think also this project has a lot of potential because it is looking for places to have the most impact. It’s not defined yet what it’s going to do or how it’s going to do it, but it’s looking to make a positive change that I think will improve both a lot of people’s lives and the systems that have caused problems in the past. It’s pretty revolutionary to have Gap Inc. sitting down at a table with people who have been working in the labor movement their entire lives and figuring out solutions together.

Deepa Saharia '18, board member representing students

Gap Inc. has long been interested and at the forefront of trying to improve the standards of workers who are working in our supply chain. We’ve always sought to raise the bar in the industry and do that in a collaborative way. It really was Bruce Raynor and Anna Burger who approached us about this idea.. The idea of bringing together diverse voices who would kind of check their historical baggage at the door and try and think aspirationally moving forward was something pretty intriguing to us.

Dan Briskin, vice president, Global Employee Relations, Gap Inc.

This conversation with a group of industry experts from different backgrounds, is helping all of us hone in on what programs and interventions are really making change in the area of worker’s rights. For GoodWeave, we’re especially interested in child labor and forced labor. The idea that these roundtables will ultimately result in some concrete projects, especially around research and impact evaluation, is a necessary piece that, to some degree, is missing in our field.

Nina Smith, founding executive director, GoodWeave International

From your perspective, what makes the project unique?

I think that there are a lot of initiatives out there, but one thing that makes this unique is that we are asking the question of ‘what will it take to make current approaches really sustainable,’ whereas most other are focusing on tinkering with minor improvements to a flawed system. As we can see, there are still labor violations all over the world in factories that produce for major brands that have been active in this area. So, you have to ask the question ‘why after 25 years are we still seeing the same problem in those branded factories who have made major efforts to improve?’

Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla, New Conversations director

I always appreciate conversations about these issues (of workers’ rights) -- to get out of our bubbles and exchange ideas and experiences to further our collective thinking. But bringing ILR into play with all of it has the potential to bring new research and evidence to the scene. This project came about based on evidence that after 20 years of effort the factory auditing efforts that were supposed to bring workers’ rights and hasn’t changed a whole lot in reality. That interests u,s because we feel the interventions are happening in the wrong place – only in factories as opposed to the out-sourced, unregulated work force that is involved in so much production for global brands. So we are in alignment with this idea that solutions need to look differently.

Nina Smith, GoodWeave International

What is unique is the different perspectives around the room and perspectives from people who are experienced practitioners, and also its very solution oriented. We want to come up with a concrete idea. We’re not just talking theoretically. The aim is to develop concrete approaches that can actually be implemented. Such as, how do you fix this broken compliance model the industry is stuck in?

Jill Tucker, head of Supply Chain Innovation & Transformation, C&A Foundation

I think the association with such a prominent academic institution like Cornell is an important connection. That isn’t often part of these collaborations. The focus on having the conversation informed by rigorous academic research is a little bit different than maybe some of the other efforts that are going on. Our challenge is to determine, given our unique array of voices around the table, where can we fill a space that is not being addressed right now or a need or a void that is open? I think we’re still evolving to determine where we can be most effective. 

Dan Briskin, Gap Inc.

How does the project fit into your institution’s goals?

ILR, historically, has always come from a specific place. It’s been bridging the gap between the labor movement and management trying to find ways to create solutions. But, the role for ILR has changed with globalization in the 21st century. Along with that comes a need for a shift in how students, faculty and research is done because the old ways of doing these things is not effective, it’s not helping workers in the apparel garment factories that we talk about. We need to find better ways to do it and walking away from this meeting, I have the onus to look for a way to do it better.

Deepa Saharia '18

The topic of the project is a natural one for ILR. We’re talking about labor, sustainability of efforts to improve labor practices, and the conditions of workers at the other end of global supply chains, all issues that are core to ILR’s mission about advancing the world of work, globally. In order to carry out the kind of research that is necessary to figure out sustainable approaches, we need knowledgeable researchers, many of whom are found in ILR. ILR is thus a natural home for a project like this and our research networks are well established, so we can always bring in researchers from elsewhere, many who are our former students.

Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla

It certainly aligns with our aspiration to be a leader in the industry and to lead by example. We have a long history of engagement.   Sitting down with different stakeholders that may have divergent points of view is always a great exercise to help inform our own practices. It aligns with the values of our company and how we’d like to position ourselves.

Dan Briskin, Gap Inc.

GoodWeave has developed very specialized skills and methodologies around working in the ‘unregulated’ part of the supply chain, the outsourced work that is pretty informal and unregulated. We’re now starting to expand and move into new industries. We’re launching in apparel and other textile sectors, we’re talking about some partnerships in agriculture. For me, where the intersection comes is elevating the conversation around what’s happening in this informal part of the supply chain. My hope is, as we’re trying to further the conversation, we can put a spotlight right there on that part of the workers’ rights problems. We need to be focusing where the most egregious forced labor and child labor problems are happening.

Nina Smith, GoodWeave International

How do you see the project moving forward with influencing policy?

When we develop an idea that we believe is new and different and can be implemented, then we will need to invite more people into the room from different stakeholder groups – worker representatives, suppliers, maybe government, the brands, of course. In this industry, much of the work has been promoted by brands. When we develop an idea we feel we’ve fleshed out well enough, we need to approach a larger audience and obtain more buy-in from different stakeholder groups.

Jill Tucker, C&A Foundation

As far as progress goes, I think that we have collected a pretty amazing array of diverse stakeholders and voices around the table. Just from a purely academic perspective, the level of conversation is extremely robust and it’s been impressive, so that gives a lot of hope that there could be something positive that would come out of those thoughts and conversations. I think the focus will continue to be, and has been, on what are those longer term levers that might be able to help, to effect meaningful change and improve labor standards.

Dan Briskin, Gap Inc.

I think that the way this project is going to influence policy is through the activities of our board. We’ve assembled a group of people from backgrounds, representing multiple stakeholders. They are all very well respected in their line of work and in this industry. If this group was to take a position on a particular issue, the fact that it’s this group doing so will carry some weight in policy circles and I think people will listen to them. One more research project alone isn’t going to influence policy.

Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla

What do you feel is the next step in the project?

Our challenge is to develop one or more practical, concrete idea that can be fleshed out between now and the next meeting, then we can start the process of addressing detail and refinement. Currently, we are almost restating the diagnoses of the problem. We are at the early stages of trying to use our collective experience to develop solutions that are innovative, but also imagine how they can be practically implementable.

Jill Tucker, C&A Foundation

Moving forward, we’re very focused on finding areas of mutual interest as that’s always been our approach when we’ve been engaging stakeholders who may be highly critical of us. Instead of fighting each other, which is typically a pretty big waste of time, we prefer to engage and discuss and find those areas where we can align and make some progress. We want to focus on areas where we can work together, not dwell on areas where it may not be as feasible to do so.

Dan Briskin, Gap Inc.