Senior Advisor David Vermijs discusses some of the barriers that companies face when aiming to ensure that workers have freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
January 2020 | David Vermijs
Between 2010-2014, the Peruvian fruit growing company Composol was in ceaseless conflict with its workers and their union representatives. It had strong turnover of staff, low motivation among those remaining, and, according to its own accounts, very high litigation cost due to constant cases before the labor courts. The company’s labor troubles were even featured as a prominent case example in complaints filed by Peruvian and international unions with the US Department of Labor and the European Commission related to beneficial trade agreements.
It was not until 2014 that the company started to realize how much of an impact this was having on its business, and decided more meaningful action was necessary. Together with local and internationally focused unions and business associations, the company embarked on a path towards fully embracing social dialogue and trade union rights. Through a process of trust-building, negation training and capacity building on labor rights -among others- the company and unions were able to fundamentally transform their relationship. In addition to more satisfied workers and meeting company commitments, results also included lowered costs in recruitment, transportation and legal fees, among many others.
Those who have worked on trade union rights know that this is all easier said than done.
While many companies list respect for trade union rights in their policy commitments, pledge to adhere to industry standards, and participate in multi-stakeholder initiatives, many still struggle to identify and implement meaningful action to address the risks to trade union rights in their global value chains.
While many companies list respect for trade union rights in their policy commitments, (...) many still struggle to identify and implement meaningful action to address the risks to trade union rights in their global value chains.
In our work with Mondiaal FNV we recognized three categories of barriers that often create challenges for global companies to ensure respect for trade union rights in their global operations and value chains:
Our publication provides a detailed diagnostic tool with simple questions to help companies identify the specific barriers they might face in a particular context or relationship.
We have seen that those companies who identify their salient human rights issues (one of the practical steps the publication suggests) now often include freedom of association and right to collective bargaining among them. I believe it reflects a broader understanding of how interconnected human rights impacts are and that one of the most sustainable ways to improve human rights for workers—in a way that also brings benefits to business—is to give workers a voice and take proactive steps to reduce barriers and reinforce constructive relationships that enable them to organize, make their voice heard and take a stake in the long-term interest of the company.
But identifying trade union rights as important is only the first step. We need to move to action. Our work with companies on these issues has surfaced a range of practical approaches companies are taking to address these barriers in new and meaningful ways. Whether it is the Freedom of Association protocol that was developed by apparel and footwear companies with local suppliers and stakeholders in Indonesia to address the locally challenging context for trade union rights or the way that companies have collaborated in Mexico to jointly apply leverage to improve union relations.
Identifying trade union rights as important is only the first step. We need to move to action.
Different types of approaches are almost certainly going to be necessary to address the range of situations a company might face and the different types of barriers that may be present. The resource offers a continuum of different types of leverage that can be applied internally and externally, with practical case examples to illustrate these approaches in practice: for example, working jointly with peer companies and international and local trade unions to advance collective bargaining to improve living wages in the garment sector, or exerting collective leverage with peers vis-à-vis a government to improve laws and regulations that protect trade union rights (both of which have concrete case examples in the publication).
Our aim is to inspire companies with ideas for concrete action, to move from recognizing risks to trade union rights to taking meaningful action to address those risks, by drawing from a menu of potential options for action. We hope it can provide companies with a roadmap for developing thoughtful, meaningful and targeted actions necessary to tackle these issues more effectively in practice.
As a Senior Advisor with Shift, David engages with our collaboration partners on an everyday basis, focusing on helping companies identify, prioritize and mitigate human rights risks.