Oxfam’s workers’ rights expert Rachel Wilshaw shares six insights from her experiences of working with companies to drive progress on decent wages and conditions.
“We truly want the company to create a mechanism for us to report our concerns… channels such as hotline and emails are too sensitive for us to use.”
That’s what one worker in a factory run by multinational Unilever told us when I visited in 2011 as part of an Oxfam team assessing conditions for its workers in Vietnam. And it illustrates how good access to the workers helped us to uncover a key initial finding: that they felt disempowered and lacked a safe space to talk frankly about their concerns. Unilever described Oxfam’s findings about its factory as a wake-up call, and engaged with us to make improvements (read the full story of how it worked with Oxfam to do this here).
In this blog, I want to draw on over a decade of experience on workers’ rights to highlight what I think helps projects succeed. Here are six key factors that I’ve noticed are important for NGOs such as Oxfam when working with companies.
1. Good access to workers themselves is crucial…
One of the biggest challenges facing NGOs conducting research in this area is getting access to the workers themselves. Gaining access to workers is fundamental to ensure that their voice is heard as this allows us to speak to the very people we are trying to support and get a good understanding of their lives and the challenges facing them.
That access at Unilever also enabled us to create three comprehensive published reports, one on the gaps between policy and practice that we found at the start of the project, one on how far those gaps had been closed by the time the project closed, and a more recent report looking back at the partnership.
We also worked with UK retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) on a similar but smaller scale project. We conducted group and individual interviews with workers (women and men in equal numbers, and those performing similar roles), and gave feedback to M&S and to management at the sites we visited on where they could improve further, including on worker voice, sick pay and job progression. (You can read the report covering this work here)
2. As is getting close enough to management so you can persuade and challenge them
One thing that becomes clear very quickly when working with firms is the importance both of building a relationship with the managers responsible for labour rights and supply chains, and of winning top management support for integrating rights into everyday commercial decisions. Equally vital is being a “critical friend”, challenging the company when needed. If things are going to change, you need to build a good relationship and trust. That can help you to challenge staff and to judge when to escalate an issue, if necessary right up to CEO level. But it’s also vital to have patience with staff when they are sincerely trying to improve but facing enormous obstacles. Part of understanding the obstacles is developing a sophisticated grasp of the business context and developing your understanding of the systemic issues that all companies encounter.
3. Well-designed research and campaigns can have real impact
From April 2018 to April 2022, Oxfam researched and publicly rated leading UK supermarkets on their human rights performance using a “supermarket scorecard” as part of our Behind the Barcodes campaign. Designing the research around a public scorecard – supported by some inventive campaign stunts (see picture above) and pressure from customers and Oxfam supporters – really helped to maximise its impact, triggering a “race to the top” among UK supermarkets to improve their ratings. The result? Five of the six supermarkets we rated in 2018 – Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – improved their scores. (Also, see my blog welcoming Lidl’s new 2020 human rights policy here and an example of a human rights impact assessment published during the campaign.)
Joseraldo Medeiros, a union leader in Brazil’s fruit exporting region of Rio Grande do Norte, told an interviewer that the impact of the scorecard and campaign on UK supermarkets could be seen in real changes in what the workers he represents can buy each month. “Five kilos of extra beans on each worker’s table,” he said. “If we hadn’t fought for this, workers would not have received [this each month].”
Throughout, we have tried to stick to some key principles of effective campaigning to influence businesses: including justifying the campaign with evidence and giving companies the chance to do the right thing (read more about these principles in this blog: ‘Critical Friends’: The dos & don’ts of corporate campaigning, Oxfam-style).
4. Pushing living wages must be at the core of what we do – and we see more and more firms getting on board with that
The battle for living wages, in both companies and in their supply chains, has been a driving force behind Oxfam’s work with companies over the past decade. As this blog explains, poverty wages are fuelling today’s global inequality crisis. Living wages are a human right and arguably the most important aspect of a worker’s working life. In the UK, there has been steady progress towards living wages being paid. There are now 12,000 accredited Living Wage employers, covering 3.5 million workers, with this figure projected to grow to 5 million some time in 2024. As well as benefiting workers, many employers have found that paying a living wage can be good for business. Decently paid staff are more likely to perform better, to gain new skills, take less sick leave, be better motivated and more likely to remain loyal to the company.
Momentum is also building across the globe: Oxfam was involved in setting up the Global Living Wage Initiative, with progress in Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, the US, Canada and Hong Kong. Its vision is “a world where every working family can afford a decent standard of living and every worker is compensated without prejudice”.
Of course, the living wage is just one aspect of decent work: we also need to push for essential rights, not least the right to join or form a trade union. And, beyond formal employees, we need to press for a living wage to be earned by the hundreds of millions of informal-sector workers who increasingly dominate the global workforce (see this blog about closing living wage gaps in banana supply chains).
5. Women’s voices must be front and centre
Gender equality and the needs of women workers must be at the heart of all our work with companies to drive improvements for workers.
To take just one example, women workers need processes that are designed to enable their voices and concerns to be heard in the workplace. Firms need to ensure grievance mechanisms and consultation processes include women. This Oxfam research outlines practical steps that companies can take to enable women workers to be heard and fulfil their potential.
But we also need to focus firms’ attention on the unpaid care that most women workers do in and around the home. Valuing paid and unpaid work to drive equality and lift women out of poverty is the focus of Oxfam’s‘ ‘Valuing Women’s Work’ programme. Valuing informal work will be an important part of this as so many women across the globe and in supply chains are in informal work. Companies need to look beyond formal workers to the informal workers in their supply chain and be accountable for their pay and conditions too.
6. It’s vital to work with others and participate in multi-stakeholder forums that can support your work
Companies’ work in this area will be more effective if they join multi-stakeholder initiatives to improve workers’ lives. That means forums such as the Ethical Trading Initiative in the UK, the Malawi Tea 2020 programme or the long-running and successful World Banana Forum.
The crucial point is that systemic issues cannot be tackled in isolation – these multi-stakeholder initiatives help companies to look beyond the individual entity to understand and tackle global challenges for workers in supply chains across the globe. We need as many companies, trade unions and NGOs to join these forums as possible and to participate actively. In fact, we need to get a message to all the companies we work with: if you are serious about corporate responsibility you need to get involved in these networks and help them build to a scale that can have a real influence. Importantly, leading companies can join forces with other stakeholders to advocate for legislation that raises standards such as on wages and protections for workers.
Reasons for optimism
With so many workers across the globe still living with appalling wages and working conditions, the scale of the challenge for workers’ rights advocates is vast. Yet I think the past decade also gives me reasons for optimism. By building relationships and engaging deeply, NGOs and companies really can make a difference and companies can be helped and challenged to deliver on decent work for their workers.
Governments know shockingly little about the millions of informal and unpaid women workers – and, in a world that undervalues their labour, that’s no accident (one of a series of blogs Views and Voices is running to mark International Workers’ Day).