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Opinion

4 Aug 2016

Author:
Daniel Blackburn (Director) and Ciaran Cross (Researcher), International Centre for Trade Union Rights

Getting informed about unions is key to engaging workers in global supply chains

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Companies today are expected to monitor and ensure human rights and social compliance throughout their supply chains. They are increasingly called upon to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts in their operations, to increase supply chain transparency, to improve their interface with local managers, and to take effective steps to identify and deal with risks at all levels in their business relationships. Such responsibilities present a number of challenges, not least because of the diverse geographic areas and complex sourcing structures involved. Auditing remains the primary model for promoting compliance, but the scale, frequency and cost of this approach can limit its efficacy. The complexity of global supply chains and the significant ‘gaps’ in visibility left by auditing models mean that brands may still lack awareness of factory level risks.

Recognition and engagement with trade unions, can streamline, improve, and facilitate relations to workers, and help companies to respond to factory level issues, as well as communicate and implement responses. 

Empowerment of workers is increasingly recognised as a key facet of effective compliance, by helping to keep companies in touch with real-time developments in worker-management relations, human rights impacts and workplace safety at the factory level. Recognition and engagement with trade unions, can streamline, improve, and facilitate relations to workers, and help companies to respond to factory level issues, as well as communicate and implement responses. This can help create an environment in which companies are able to identify and address concerns throughout the supply chain, as they arise, and before they escalate.

Over the over the past fifteen months, the International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR) has been mapping trade unions across the world. We have compiled a comprehensive and up-to-date guide to unions in every country. This was often a vertigo-inducing task. We catalogued thousands of unions worldwide, the sectors and industries they operate in, their affiliations and political identities. As the lead researchers on this mammoth project, we were often struck by the dearth of comprehensive data on trade unionism in many poorer countries. ICTUR has - we hope - made a good start in rectifying this. And one thing that we believe our work highlights is the pressing need for an understanding of trade unions that digs deeper than ‘scoring’ or ‘ranking’ of countries. In the world of workers’ rights, knowing the ‘score’ is not enough.

If engagement with unions is to be a meaningful exercise, getting informed about the unions that already exist and operate in any given country – as well as any restrictions on trade union rights in law or in practice – must be a priority for companies.

Organised workers: Mapping a complex reality

Governments in almost all countries impose some limitations on trade union rights. These restrictions sometimes make workers’ attempts to exercise freedom of association practicably impossible. It is still a common tactic for governments and local interest groups to create or encourage weak unions, to recognise ‘paper’ unions, or to make membership of the unions they control mandatory. Despite global obligations to respect freedom of association, factory-level managers may tolerate or even encourage these schemes. In such situations, freedom of association on paper is little more than a façade in practice.

Nevertheless, hundreds of millions of workers across the globe are organised into unions. These unions take a myriad of different forms, and are underpinned by an incredibly diverse set of social, cultural and political trends. Internationally, trade unions encompass the entire political spectrum, every industry and every imaginable class of worker. The context in which unions operate differs enormously not only from country to country, but also sometimes from confederation to confederation. There are even significant differences of character between industrial unions affiliated to a single national confederation.

Trade unions are strongly rooted in their specific political, economic and legal context. In mapping this context for our new publication, we drew extensively on a myriad of sources to illustrate the diversity of organised labour across the world. We looked at unions’ institutional base, their scope and organisation in relation to the national economy, as well as the relevant industrial relations frameworks and labour law. These elements are key to understanding why restrictions on freedom of association exist and how they can be overcome. 

Effective engagement with workers in the supply chain

If engagement with unions is to be a meaningful exercise, getting informed about the unions that already exist and operate in any given country – as well as any restrictions on trade union rights in law or in practice – must be a priority for companies. In a world of complex transnational relations, unmapped supply chains are a major risk to social compliance and – ultimately – to company reputation. Identifying relevant trade union organisations to engage with therefore requires insights into the situation in-country.

Relationships between businesses and trade unions are not always easy. But positively engaging with unions is necessary to comply with freedom of association requirements. Effective engagement also presents an opportunity to improve awareness, communication, and broader compliance. Reaching out to unions, building and maintaining relations, and encouraging the participation of local suppliers with organised workers in practice - these are essential to effectively supporting human rights and social compliance throughout the supply chain.

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Our publication, Trade Unions of the World 2016, is available to order at www.ictur.org

Established in 1987, ICTUR is a non-profit organisation based in London, committed to the promotion of international trade union rights through research and advocacy services.