5 Lessons from Working with Businesses to Support Workers around the World

May 23, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

This piece appeared on ETI’s May ‘Leadership Series’ blog yesterday

I was present at the birth of ETI 20 years ago. Recently installed at the Catholic aid agency, CAFOD, I was sent off to discuss an obscure initiative to set up a ‘Monitoring and Verification Working Group’ for companies trying to assess labour standards in their supply chains.

I was impressed to find a lot of corporate heavyweights there, lured by the silver-tongued Simon Zadek, who seemed able to captivate companies and NGOs alike. We quickly dropped the awful name, added trade unions to the mix, and the ETI was born.

In the UK, the ETI marked a sea change in the dialogue between companies and civil society. Previously, NGOs tactics were solidly outsider, criticising ‘big business’ for its many failings.

My own research for CAFOD had already caused me to question this narrative – the queues of women seeking jobs outside Bangladesh’s garment factories made sure of that, with their insistence that (while many complained of abusive treatment in the factories), earning a wage had won them new respect within the household.

With ETI, we found ourselves sitting together with the buyers of those garments, trying to help them address the complex issues of modern production networks (it took C&A three years just to find out where its clothes were being produced, unravelling the extraordinary complexities of its supply chains).

I sat on ETI’s board for the next few years and the lessons I learned there have stayed with me ever since.

Lesson one – combining insider and outsider tactics often gets the best results

After one board meeting, a supermarket rep sidled up to me and said, ‘”Duncan, could the NGOs campaign against us a bit more? My Board is threatening to cut the budget for CSR.”

I’ve used that example ever since as an illustration of the false dichotomy between outsider campaigning and insider advocacy. A combination of the two creates the pressure for action, and the cooperation that’s needed to find answers to tricky problems.

Lesson two – ensure diversity

Diversity in what are now called ‘multi-stakeholder initiatives’ is hard work, but in the long term it produces more creativity and results.

The ETI board was a study in contrasting cultures. Caricaturing massively, the corporates were ambitious, can-do pragmatists, occasionally dazzling us with statements like “I’ve been asked what would it take to make Sainsburys 100% Fairtrade.”

The unions took the long view – this was about pursuing long term bargaining rights and freedom of association, not jumping onto every passing bandwagon. And they really didn’t like the NGOs, who they saw (not without some justification) as a bunch of middle class intruders into the ancestral struggle between capital and labour.

The trouble was the companies were only there because of the NGOs, so they had to put up with us!

Over time, we got to know each other’s foibles (the guy from the ITUC was a fish and chips enthusiast), and we built trust over meals and pints.

Lesson three – empathise

Empathy + power analysis means you have to build the confidence and emotional intelligence to engage with people as individuals, while still recognizing that their views and constraints are shaped by their personal histories and the organizations they work for.

As a campaigner, it takes time to see the human being behind the label: I remember trying to recruit a ‘suit’ from a major department store to join ETI. I deployed my half-understood business jargon – this is about reputational risk, staff retention, yadda yadda. ”I don’t care about all that,” he replied, “I want to make the world better for my children.” Oops.

I also saw how the companies navigated the difficult combination of cooperation and rivalry – after all, we’re talking cutthroat competition between major supermarkets here. Even so, they came together in working groups, recruited new members, talked each other’s language, and understood each other’s challenges.

Lesson four – the messenger matters

When it comes to influencing, the messenger often matters.  At least as much as the message. Corporates are far more likely to listen to other corporates, rather than finger-wagging NGOs or class warrior trade unions.

Some of the really interesting stuff happened after I moved on. In 2013, I watched the swift and effective response to Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza disaster. Companies, unions and NGOs were able to draw on their pre-established relationships and trust, pick up the phone and address local and international demands for action.

Within weeks a Fire and Safety Accord was agreed, which was signed by over 200 apparel brands (retailers and importers from over 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia), two global trade unions and eight Bangladesh trade unions, as well as four NGO witnesses.

It may not be a coincidence that key actors in making a success of the Accord had previously been active in ETI – Dan Rees was head of ILO Better Work (former ETI director) and Alan Roberts the Accord’s first director (former ETI chair). They understood the landscape like no others.

While undoubtedly more needs to be done, there have been real improvements in the factories of Dhaka, which brings us to…..

Lesson five – seize opportunities

Shocks and crises can be windows of opportunity for progressive change. But, as Rana Plaza showed, only if the relationships are already in place that allow people and players to work together to respond.

Twenty years on from my time at ETI, I believe there is lots to celebrate. Progressive companies at least, realise that addressing and upholding the human rights of workers within their supply chains is both commercially important and an ethical imperative. They also realise that there are practical ways in which they can use their influence to Improve the lives of millions of workers around the world.

Yet, despite the five lessons – and the progress – I work for an NGO, and our role is to be permanently dissatisfied. I therefore always ask, where next? Here’s a couple of thoughts:

  • First, we discussed a Living Wagefrom the earliest days. It’s even in the ETI code of conduct, but progress in turning it into a reality has been minimal.
  • Second, gender equality is about much more than just funding a few projects or creating jobs for women: companies need to collect disaggregated data and really take the issues seriously.

Much more progress is needed on these issues and I look forward to seeing it happen.

(I should add that I was pleased to see that ETI has started working with its company members and the University of Manchester on mapping women’s rights initiatives in supply chains and on ensuring greater gender equality in the future.)

So a huge thanks to the ETI, and best of luck for the next 20 years.