Employers supporting decent work in domestic and global supply chains

The International Labour Organization must adopt a more coherent and strategic approach to domestic and global supply chains, which better responds to the needs of governments, workers and employers. Employer Spokesperson to the ILO, Mthunzi Mdwaba, lays out the employers’ views on this topic.

Global supply chains have been the foundation of the global economy, stimulating economic growth and creating jobs since the start of the 21st century. Studies have shown that the benefits include promoting transition from informal to formal economy jobs, reducing poverty levels and advancing entrepreneurship. They also encourage and enhance skills development, productivity and competitiveness - vital ingredients to increasing men and women's participation in the labour market.

While acknowledging these benefits, there are clear and tragic cases where labour standards are not being adhered to and workers' lives have been put at risk in certain supply chains. Ensuring safety and health in the workplace is the joint responsibility of employers, governments and employees. Strengthening labour standards in supply chains though is not about whether a product or service crosses a border, creating a "regulatory gap" that needs to be bridged at the international level.

So where is the challenge? The 2018 report of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights to the UN General Assembly gives a quite comprehensive answer to this question: "A lack of government leadership in addressing governance gaps remains the biggest challenge. A fundamental issue is that host Governments are not fulfilling their duty to protect human rights, either failing to pass legislation that meets international human rights and labour standards, passing legislation that is inconsistent, or failing to enforce legislation that would protect workers and affected communities." The statement underlines that we do not face a governance gap at international level, but a lack of implementation and enforcement at national level.

This resonates with last year's report on child labour and forced labour in global supply chains by Alliance 8.7, a global partnership dedicated to achieving target 8.7 of Agenda 2030. The report finds that the vast majority of child and forced labour has no link to global supply chains but is purely domestic. In fact, in North Africa, for instance, 91% of child labour is purely domestic. Thus, by concentrating primarily on decent work deficits in the global supply chain, there is a grave risk of overlooking domestic supply chain issues. On the other hand, if the root causes of decent work deficits are addressed in a country, workers in both domestic and export-focused companies benefit.

Many challenges in supply chains are systemic issues, such as child and forced labour, discrimination and non-respect for occupational safety standards. These are problems that no one company can solve. In addition, blame-game strategies will only delay action. What is required is constructive collaboration between workers, employers and governments. There is an opportunity to do this in the upcoming International Labour Organization (ILO) Technical Meeting on Decent Work in Global Supply Chains. We are ready to work with our  Constituent partners to find practical and lasting solutions to decent work challenges in both domestic and global supply chains.

Employers call for better governance

Companies must comply with the law and respect human and labour rights, and they should use their leverage to push business partners to do the same, such as through codes of conduct and capacity-building efforts.

But companies cannot enforce the law. Employers have been calling for a long time for more support to national governments to enforce the international labour standards they signed up to and the national laws they have in place.

For Employers, more needs to be done to address the underlying conditions that result in decent work deficits in countries with weak governance and developmental issues such as poverty, informality and corruption.

Building the capacity of governments to address non-compliance to national labour standards will go a long way to increasing protection of all workers in domestic and global supply chains. If the focus is only on workers in global supply chains then that protection only covers 10 to 15% of the workforce. Those countries that enforce adherence to the rule of law across domestic and global supply chains confirm that strengthening implementation of labour standards does not require special supply chain legislation.

The Employers believe the ILO can spearhead efforts to harness the opportunities for decent work in supply chains and redress the shortcomings by developing a comprehensive strategy and action plan, strengthen coordination within the institution and scale-up existing successful programmes to integrate supply chain issues. 

Employers look forward to the ILO Decent Work in Global Supply Chain meeting this week. IOE and its 159 member associations in 150 countries are fully committed to making the meeting a success, and, more importantly finding lasting solutions to decent work deficits in domestic and global supply chains.

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