There are several strategies unions can pursue to improve employment conditions and worker's rights in the global apparel and footwear industries. As a strategy consultant to a union such as Unite, I would focus on four methods: Linking labor standards to trade, implementing a global worker education initiative, forcing organizations to create a corporate code of conduct that will be enforced by several independent monitors, and monetizing labor practices.
Using global trade as a vehicle for improving enforcement of labor rights as well as corporate codes of conduct will help to protect the fundamental rights to associate and organize trade unions, which provide, in my opinion, the only sustainable mechanism for ensuring that workers have a voice in the larger economic debate. The initiatives would also help protect against excessive working hours, underpayment, and inadequate occupational health and safety standards.
But first, before focusing on the latter methods, I would educate the rank and file to understand the importance of international solidarity for all workers. I would also initiate exchange programs between union members nationally and internationally to share experiences and ideas on specific company issues. It is also important to form alliances and joint actions with social movements on issues of mutual concern to gain more man power for the campaign.
Cross-training from different union members and social movement actors can help to better explain the workers' conditions relative to the living standards of the entire country and similar countries. It is unrealistic to compare developing countries' workers' wages and conditions with those in West. It is reasonable to compare conditions between factory workers in Vietnam and Thailand to gain a better perspective on labor conditions so programs that demand better conditions relative to their own countries can be initiated with a realistic goal.
Trade agreements must be conditioned to include a substantive standard for worker rights. There is widespread agreement as to what international labor rights should constitute a labor clause, which largely includes ILO Conventions ratified by or satisfied by the domestic laws of most countries in the world. This approach requires the direct cooperation of governments and is dependent upon the departure of a "free trade mind-set" to an ideology that prioritizes issues of concern to working people.
The latter will be a huge challenge, especially when a main benefit of free trade is cheap foreign labor to massage the bottom line. A disclosure clause that requires corporations to disclose all the players in their supply chain before trade commences will help labor activists and unions actually identify the many production facilities that they did not know even existed, given the complex web of suppliers (caused by decentralized global chains of production extending into the informal sector) corporations are relying on and hiding from the public because of atrocious labor standards.
The latter would be a great step towards identifying key links in the supply chain and help unions exploit the weakest links to gain momentum in the campaign. Implementing a global worker education initiative in all developing countries that produce for Western markets should be conducted in parallel to the formation of a corporate code of conduct. By possessing complete knowledge of their legal rights and entitlements, workers can be in a position to advocate for themselves.
If not, they will be overly dependent on outside monitors to initiate improvements in the workplace, which may or may not happen. Also, unless a vigorous enforcement of corporate codes of conduct is implemented, a process I will define in the following section, the workers risk being victims of biased monitors who are often employees of the corporation turning a blind eye to miserable working conditions. A third initiative I advocate is the development of corporate codes of conduct, a set of labor standards to which producers are expected to adhere, and mechanisms for monitoring its use.
There are two problems that stem from this idea that I believe under my strategy will not interfere with this initiative. The first is the idea that corporate codes of conduct impose a private regulatory system on companies operating in the global economy, enforced by consumer choice. With several monitoring agencies, companies will be held publicly accountable for their labor conditions and will be compared to their marketplace competitors, forcing them to improve conditions to protect their bottom line.
Also, while the corporate codes of conduct are one method of holding corporations accountable for basic labor standards and forcing more transparency, the workers voices will not be ignored and the fight to organize them will continue, because in my opinion, unions are the organizations that will truly empower them and give them a voice in the global workplace. The second is that corporate codes of conduct are vague and unspecific on purpose, thus they are impossible to enforce and quantify compliance.
Also, without effective implementation and monitoring, codes of conduct are virtually meaningless (Nike accountable to its own paid auditors who were encouraged to skew results and exploit one or two "improvements"). Many labor activists have little confidence in these codes of conduct, largely because enforcement is voluntary and generally internally monitored. Information on cases of violations is kept within the company. Thus, corporate codes must be accompanied by vigorous consumer campaigns and truly independent monitoring.