Think Tank

Ensuring Workers’ Rights in Global Supply Chains

All the well-intentioned statements of corporate responsibility mean nothing if you can’t implant the message on the factory floor.

Just about every major manufacturer has a supplier code of conduct to ensure that workers are treated humanely. Too often, however, those documents fail to prevent unacceptable working conditions. In a typical global supply chain, involving multiple tiers of production, the chances of failure are alarmingly high.

The solution lies in adequate training at the most important level — the workers themselves. Employees and factory managers need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills that will ensure humane working conditions and fair wages at the point of production.

“If you start on the factory floor, you start creating change step by step,” says Sofie Nordström, co-founder of QuizRR, a Swedish training and education venture for ensuring corporate social responsibility (CSR). A former journalist, she first became aware of the need for an intensive training regimen in Bangladesh, site of multiple labor violations and worker deaths.

Nordström views on-site training sessions as “building blocks” that enable communication about workers’ basic rights and responsibilities. Dialogue between labor and management is essential to avoiding rumors and misunderstandings that can even lead to riots, she says.

QuizRR employs a series of digital training modules, providing factories with tablets and touchscreens that guide teams of employees through the basics of workspace policies on health and safety, use of protective equipment, clean water, adequate toilets and ventilation, among other elements.

Subsequent modules cover worker engagement, involving “social dialogue” in the workplace; and wage management, instilling the principle of a living wage, with the intention (on the employer’s side) of minimizing turnover.

Worker engagement touches on the often-controversial issue of employees’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Many factories routinely employ illegal techniques to prevent unionization, in violation of local laws. The training module lays out clear rules on the access of union representatives to the workplace, including grievance procedures in the event of management violations.

The approach is “pragmatic and careful,” Nordström stresses. “Management has to feel that this is a tool that it can use to train its employees. It’s not about an NGO coming into the factory with a hidden agenda.”

The length of the initiative depends on both the size and ambition of the facility. A factory with a thousand or more employees might spend eight to 10 weeks going through the three stages of training.

QuizRR seeks a minimum of two-year contracts with each factory. “We want this to be a long-term solution for them to use,” says Nordström. “You don’t change the world in a minute.”

Most global supply chains are made up of multiple tiers of manufacturing, stretching from production of raw materials to final assembly. Often it’s those deeper levels that are the source of violations or inadequate working conditions. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) might even be unaware that their products are being made at an unapproved and non-compliant location.

QuizRR’s program starts at Tier 1, but was designed to move upstream as well. One of the company’s initiatives in Bangladesh is exploring application of the training to Tier 2 suppliers, although it has yet to proceed to that level. “We think we’re going to do it pretty soon,” Nordström says.

Worker training on the factory floor isn’t a “one-and-done” effort. Refresher courses are essential, in large part because of the high rate of turnover at a typical plant. Some locations might experience the replacement of an entire workforce over the course of a single year. As a result, QuizRR recommends retraining on at least an annual basis.

Digital training has its advantages, including ease of application and relatively low cost. At some point, however, in-person training with experts becomes necessary.

Nordström says QuizRR is collaborating with other organizations that can provide that additional phase of training. Partners in the effort include Ethical Training Initiatives in the United Kingdom and Norway, and the Netherlands-based Solidaridad.

“We can combine our training with theirs,” says Nordström. “We try to hook up with the good actors that want the same thing that we do, but don’t have the possibility of scaling.”

Scaling is precisely what QuizRR intends to do. Nordström harbors ambitious plans for expanding the company’s presence in locations the world round. Launched in 2015, the program has trained some 45,000 workers in more than 200 factories over the past two years. She hopes to reach 2 million workers by 2020. To fund that effort, QuizRR recently secured $1.3m in new financing.

At the moment, most factories using the training tool are in China and Bangladesh, although QuizRR is also pursuing contracts in Mauritius and Thailand, the latter in collaboration with 10 Nordic food brands.

Buy-in from global brands and purchasing houses is critical to the success of the digital training concept. “Collaboration and good partners are essential,” Nordström says. “If we were to do this alone, we wouldn’t reach anywhere.”

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