In-depth interview with William Anderson of adidas: "It is important for brands to have clarity over when and how they will act with respect to HRDs"
The adidas Group and Human Rights Defenders policy by adidas refers to the United Nations definition of human rights defenders and talks about the different human rights defenders adidas is engaging with or is likely to engage with. It recognises the threats defenders face and the factors leading to them and that they can be triggered by different actors, both private and State. It discusses adidas’ expectations towards their suppliers and talks about why human rights defenders are specifically important to Adidas. It acknowledges the growing calls on businesses to engage in protection of HRDs by mentioning the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders’ recommendation that both States and businesses play an active role in supporting and promoting the role of HRDs working in their sectors, which should include, for example, speaking out when human right defenders are targeted for their corporate accountability work. The policy also offers examples of specific actions which Adidas has taken or might take to support and protect defenders. These include engaging with defenders constructively on any issue, be it related to their own operations or their supply chain, but also petitioning governments, alone or in concert with other actors, when adidas feels the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders with whom they are engaged have been impinged by the activities of the State, or its agents. In the policy, adidas pledges to take direct action where there is clear evidence that their business partner has breached the rights of human rights defenders. As such, it offers a model for what companies could strive for in their HRDs policies.
BHRRC: adidas was the first company, to the extent of our knowledge, to have published a specific policy on Human Rights Defenders. How did adidas get to the point where it felt it should have a policy on Human Rights Defenders?
William: It has been a long journey and it is the culmination of many different experiences as a company. It has been driven by internal leadership ideals, around transparency and stakeholder engagement, stakeholder expectations and interventions on individual cases.
Over the last 20 years, we have been dealing on a regular basis with cases brought to us by trade unions and civil society groups, calling for us to address conflicts when they have arisen between workers and suppliers, or with governments. In response, we developed internal approaches on how best to intervene, say when a strike or confrontation happen. For example, when a large scale strike occurs we are committed to engage with the local government and with our supplier to try to minimize any law enforcement or policing action that would aggravate the situation. We have done so many times, and in many different countries – especially those where there is weak rule of law. We also set up cooperative relationships with local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), to gain their insights and support.
Civil society challenged us to intervene on geopolitical issues, like Sudan and China’s foreign policy and freedom for Tibet. So we had to look at the bigger picture and consider what we could do with regards to these issues.
Our human rights focus shifted up a gear when China was chosen to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. We were selected as a local sponsor and in the lead-up to those games we were deeply engaged with the advocacy community both in the PRC and internationally. And with heightened concerns over civil freedoms in China, the international NGOs came to us with issues that were much bigger than our normal range of labour rights concerns related to our supply chain. Civil society challenged us to intervene on geopolitical issues, like Sudan and China’s foreign policy, freedom for Tibet, etc. So we had to look at the bigger picture and consider what we could do with regards to these issues.
The drafting of our approach was straight forward, because it stood on the shoulders of years of accumulated practice and positive engagement.
When you look at the our approach to Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) today, it’s a summation of those experiences – it’s a combination of pieces of policy that we had already developed, for example our policy on managing strike action, as well as a write-up of other operating principles and practices. The journey has been long, but the drafting of our approach was straight forward, because it stood on the shoulders of years of accumulated practice and positive engagement.
BHRRC: Were there any tensions in developing this policy, internally?
William: I work in Social & Environmental Affairs, a special unit within the Legal and Compliance Division of the adidas group. As a company we always strive for technical excellence and as specialists we are entrusted and empowered to act to drive appropriate approaches, policy and responses. Our policy on HRD describes our approach, as a department, built on years of engagement with civil society groups, including trade union officials, as well as with governments. And as the department responsible for stakeholder relations and the company’s social and environmental assurance processes, our approach has become the corporate position. So, in sum, I would say that it has not been challenging internally to secure adoption or support for this approach. Largely it is about communicating what we do to a larger audience.
BHRRC: Why did you decide not to include a more specific catalogue of actions within the policy?
William: A lot of the specific actions are already captured in our Guidelines on Employment Standards and included in our training of suppliers. The HRDs policy is just a higher-level description of our approach to concerns from the wider stakeholder community and human rights advocates in particular.
BHRRC: What is an example of a recent action that adidas took in line with its HRDs policy?
William: The most challenging situations are those where governments become directly involved in a case; when it is no longer an internal issue or dispute between worker representatives and their employer. For example, when there are large-scale strikes, local government and law enforcement agencies will often become involved. If there are conflicts and arrests, this can lead to charges being laid by a local prosecutor. And when there are prosecutions, for example of union leaders, our influence becomes much less and corporate intervention becomes much harder.
In Vietnam, in 2016, two labour rights activists were detained after meeting with recently laid-off workers. The HRDs detention was completely out of anyone’s hands, and the factory was not even aware that their former employees had reached out to an advocacy group, [b]ut on our part we wrote to government. We wanted to make them aware that we were following this case and that the workers had genuine grievances and the HRDs were acting lawfully and peacefully.
In Vietnam, in 2016, two labour rights activists were detained after meeting with recently laid-off workers. The meeting took place in the local community. The workers had lost their employment due to a fire, which had destroyed a large part of the production area of one of our suppliers. The HRDs detention was completely out of anyone’s hands, and the factory was not even aware that their former employees had reached out to an advocacy group. On our part we wrote to government. We wanted to make them aware that we were following this case and that the workers had genuine grievances and the HRDs were acting lawfully and peacefully. We also highlighted the factory’s engagement with the labour authorities, who were already actively involved in the case. The labour rights advocates were only detained briefly, and by the time we reacted they were already released, but we still wanted government to know that their actions were not helpful.
BHRRC: Was there a reaction by the government to your intervention on behalf of the activists?
William: There was no direct response to our letter, but separately we heard that greater attention was being paid to the case and more senior officials had stepped in from the Ministry of Labour to address the workers grievances. On our part, we wanted the local government to know that we were paying close attention and that we were committed to ensuring that the workers, and the labour advocates who were supporting them, had their rights protected.
BHRRC: How do you work with other companies in such cases? Do you cooperate on protection of activists?
William: We tend to work on multiple fronts – we have relationships with governments, with NGOs and of course with other brands, as well as with the ILO and other UN agencies. The degree of involvement and engagement often depends on whether the other brand has local capacity, i.e. staff on the ground. Smaller brands, for example, may be wholly reliant on third party auditors as their “eyes and ears” on worker rights issues. The brands with very mature programmes and larger in-house teams tend to be the most engaged, and work closely and collaboratively.
BHRRC: Would it be helpful if other brands also had policies on HRDs?
William: It is important for brands to have clarity over when and how they will act with respects to HRDs. Most brands recognise and acknowledge that stakeholder expectations have grown in recent years. And in this respect it is good to have a policy that defines how one will manage expectations from civil society, what interventions can be considered and how to align with internal stakeholders.
It is important for brands to have clarity over when and how they will act with respects to HRDs.
Some issues, especially if very local, can be resolved quickly, by engaging with the right stakeholders, whereas other situations may be more volatile and less easy to manage, especially if it involves central government or state policy. It is important to understand how different parties will react to different types of intervention. There are times when a public statement, or other actions by a brand, may be counterproductive and may simply be viewed as “foreign interference”.
In Asia, context is incredibly important. One needs to know culturally, and socially, how people think and act, and which behaviour might achieve the best outcome. In some cases, a closed-door discussion, with the right official, could be 5 times more effective, than a public outing of an issue.
BHRRC: Why did you decide to publicly publish your policy on HRDs?
William: We disclosed the approach (last year) because of the upcoming Corporate Human Rights Benchmark where one of the questions dealt with this topic. Our disclosure is also aligned closely with our general position on transparency: we openly communicate and explain our sustainability programme and human rights policies.
BHRRC: Is there scope for companies to work in groups to protect activists and civic freedoms?
William: Yes, but one has to be selective. Western companies feel less constrained and are often willing to work together, especially if they are consumer-facing brands, or when they are from the same industry sector. If one is going to intervene, or express a position, it is always best to act early. For example in Cambodia, in 2014, when riot police shot workers, we reached out and canvassed a very small number of other brands and within a matter of days prepared and issued a joint letter to the government. There was real urgency and we wanted our voice heard.
Western companies feel less constrained and are often willing to work together... Asian companies are generally less willing to engage or act together on human rights.
Sometimes joint action between multiple brands can take many, many weeks to secure an outcome. And the larger the number of participating brands the more difficult it is to reach consensus. Then again, some companies may only be willing to act if they are in a larger coalition, or will only express their views through member organisations; they take comfort in being part of a collective.
My experience is that Asian companies are generally less willing to engage or act together on sensitive topics, such as human rights.
BHRRC: What are some cases of ‘shrinking civic space’ that you are paying most attention to right now?
William: We have active partnerships with NGOs in China, who are involved in training on worker representation and collective bargaining processes. We are concerned how the new registration and government approval system will affect them, especially with increased vetting by the public security bureau. We are very aware of the government’s heightened sensitivity to human and labour rights topics. And so we are maintaining an active engagement with each partner, to understand how they will be constrained by government policy.
In India it appears that the shrinking of the civic space is affecting mostly internationally funded entities. We do not have the full picture yet, but we are following the new legislation and how it will impact our NGO partners, and in particular how it affects payment for services.
BHRRC: How important is the relationship with those NGOs for adidas and how is adidas affected as their space shrinks?
William: We value our NGOs relationships very highly: they are a critical stakeholder group, often providing us with unique, and independent, insights into working conditions and worker interests. They also act as key partners in the delivery of our worker empowerment programmes, and in some countries manage our grievance channels for workers.
Where governments curb freedom of expression, this can have a very detrimental effect on channels of communication for workers. It can also have a chilling effect on freedom of association and worker representation which are essential for healthy industrial relations.
Where governments close down civic society space and curb freedom of expression, this can have a very detrimental effect on local support mechanisms and channels of communication for workers. It can also have a chilling effect on freedom of association and worker representation which are essential for healthy industrial relations.
BHRRC: Would it be useful for international brands to collectively challenge the ‘closing of the civic space’ in certain countries, for example in China?
William: With respect to China, we reached out to the German government and through our membership of the Fair Labor Association we also raised concerns over the arrest and detention of HRDs with the US State department. On these issues, I believe change will only come from peer-to-peer pressure at the highest levels of government.
The bottom line is that corporate advocacy is best directed where it will have genuine impact, and holds some sway or influence.
BHRRC: In closing, why is the voice of international brands important in protecting human rights defenders?
William: A good number of years ago there was a strike in China at one of our contract suppliers. It started with a handful of workers protesting in front of the factory gate. The workers had been dismissed and wanted their jobs back. The factory was located in an Economic Processing Zone (EPZ) and the local security personnel from the zone decided to intervene. A fight broke out. After that, the whole workforce from the plant came out in support of the injured workers and marched to a nearby road. The provincial authorities responded by ordering the police to arrest protesters for blocking a public highway. Although the situation rapidly escalated, intervention by adidas with the provincial government - where we explained the root cause of the protests and the mishandling of the situation by the zone authority - secured the early release of the detained workers.
Corporates can be a force for good, in securing and upholding rights.
Where brands are willing and have access to government, and especially where they have established good relations with local officials, positive outcomes can be achieved. Corporates can be a force for good, in securing and upholding rights.