By Judy Gearhart, Executive Director,
International Labor Rights Forum
This week the International Labor Rights
Forum (ILRF) released a new report that adds to the growing body of evidence that certifications need added safeguards to ensure
they are legally accountable to workers in the supply chains they monitor.
titled Aiding and Abetting, exposes how Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), which certifies
companies using the Fair for Life label, branded
Theo Chocolate, a Seattle-based chocolate company, with its fair trade label
despite being informed by Theo workers that the company had hired an anti-union
consultant and was violating the international labor standards promoted by Fair For Life during a union organizing
after we released the report Theo Chocolate issued a statement disputing the
response to our report was expected. The report is based on interviews with
workers whose organizing drive was thwarted, so it does not surprise us that Theo
management has a different perspective. In such cases management often seeks to
portray grievances raised as those of a disgruntled few. Yet several things
remain unexplained about the Theo case.
What happened at Theo after
two-thirds of workers formally expressed an interest in forming a union that
would push the majority of workers to sign a petition against unionizing within
a year? Why did Theo hire a consultant
who advertised his services in union-avoidance strategies? And how can a fair trade auditor paid by
management objectively review a complaint by workers about management?
to these questions cannot be determined via an ILRF delegation to Theo’s
factory organized by Theo management, as suggested by Joe Whinney, Theo
Chocolate CEO. Nor is ILRF as an outside party in a position to resolve the
dispute. It must be noted however, that the ILRF’s report is not a demand that
Theo workers be forced to organize.
recommendations in Aiding and Abetting
are intended to balance out Theo’s past communications to workers about unions
and organizing, in short an equalizing follow-up to Theo having hired ACG,
which publicized its union-avoidance consulting services on its website. The
only way for Theo to repair the damage done during Theo management’s anti-union
drive would be to enter into a dialogue with the union in order to establish an
agreement that would create an environment in which workers could organize, if
they so choose, without fear of retaliation. Then workers would be able to
choose for themselves if and how to organize.
Theo’s use of union busting tactics and Theo management’s unwillingness to
atone for labor rights violations is typical in the United States.
The core recommendation of
the report is directed toward IMO which neglected to
intervene to uphold its commitment to fair trade standards as the Theo case
played out. The Theo case illustrates
bodies, paid directly by employers,
can harm efforts by workers to unionize rather than help them. It also shows how workers, seeking to use
certification codes and
processes constructively, are
put at a disadvantage when there is no transparency around the grievance process and no independent
appeal of findings from a certifier’s investigation. To be sure, the workers
should have filed with the National Labor Relations Board, but their employer
had committed – in the language of the Fair for Life code – to maintain an open
attitude towards unions. Filing a legal
complaint would have been a more aggressive approach than trying to work
through the certification process, which promised to ensure remedies for
violations of the code.
In response to the Theo case,
IMO Fair for Life actually diluted its standards. Currently, IMO’s code
encourages employers to hire consultants to talk to workers about the
advantages and possible disadvantages of unionization; effectively sanctioning
management interference with workers’ organizing decisions. This approach does
nothing to ensure that employers are kept from seeking to influence workers’
Our vision is to establish a process that could serve
any labor rights certification and monitoring program; a proposal for creating
a more credible and independent mechanism for reviewing investigations by certifying
organizations in cases where workers’ rights to organize and bargain
collectively are at risk. Specifically, we believe fair trade certifiers should
make their auditing results transparent and establish an “International Fair
Trade Board of Appeal” to assess and remedy instances where fair trade
organizations mishandle cases involving allegations of workers’ rights
violations. By addressing the inherent conflict-of-interest created when monitors
are paid by the company they audit, the proposed solution will provide workers
a useful tool in their efforts to win dignified treatment in the workplace.
Although the ILRF has no
financial stake in the fair trade movement, we are interested in ensuring that
the fair trade movement maintains a higher standard than more mainstream codes
of conduct. And as there are now a
growing number of fair trade certified work places with wage laborers, we want
to make sure the fair trade community fully understands what it means to ensure
workers’ rights to organize.
If the fair trade movement
gets this right, they’ll win on two levels: the movement will stay true to
their mission; and it will build a bridge to another social movement that is
also concerned with building collective power:
the labor movement.