Introduction: Who Can Protect Workers' Rights? The Workplace Codes of Conduct Debates

With globalization, concerns for low-wage workers’ rights in multinational enterprises around the world have grown. While the United Nations and the International Labor Organization have developed labor standards that most governments have agreed to, few of these governments have managed to implement these standards effectively. As a result, many in the international human rights movement have turned to voluntary workplace codes of conduct as a more direct and immediate method of protecting workers’ rights. However, critics charge that such codes superficially put a human face on exploitative capitalism and can damage poor workers’ chances to earn much-needed income.

Workplace codes are designed to protect the human rights of workers; they are often inspired by international human rights standards established in the conventions and declarations of the ILO and the UN. But are codes achieving these goals? Are they addressing workers’ real concerns and improving their working conditions? How are codes affecting workers’ notions of human rights and, more generally, the legitimacy of human rights for workers? This issue of Human Rights Dialogue explores whether the design and implementation of workplace codes of conduct actually protect workers’ rights and suggests alternative ways to protect human rights in the workplace.

Voluntary workplace codes of conduct are a form of self-regulation for corporations operating in the global economy. While the impetus and pressure may come from civil society and codes may come in a number of different forms, it is the multinational corporation (MNC) itself that chooses to adopt and enforce a code of conduct. By providing an entry point for MNCs into the human rights debate, workplace codes of conduct raise a particular concern among activists about the proper roles for the major actors in the human rights movement, including MNCs, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, and consumers. Who should develop codes? Does acknowledging the role of business as a human rights actor and working together with MNCs necessarily mean that labor rights activists and watchdog organizations are being co-opted? By relying on workplace codes of conduct, is the human rights movement handing off workers’ rights to the corporation?

This issue of Human Rights Dialogue is the fourth in a series on the human rights box—a theme exploring ways to increase participation in the human rights movement and access to the benefits of human rights. Can codes of conduct offer a role for businesses to play in helping to secure the human rights of their workers? Can a human rights tool developed for the most part in the North, such as codes of conduct, account for the concerns and needs of workers in the South, where most of these factories operate? Human Rights Dialogue asked workers’ rights activists to respond to these questions on the basis of their experiences with workplace codes around the world. Stephen Frost leads off by contrasting detailed and strictly enforced factory rules with vague and poorly disseminated codes of conduct in one of Mattel’s factories in southern China. (Interestingly, by all accounts Mattel has one of the best track records on codes of conduct, but precisely because of its use of codes it has become a target for critics.) And while we typically think of codes as applying to workers in the South, Trinh Duong reminds us that abuses occur in the North as well by describing the ineffectiveness of codes in New York City’s garment industry. In the view of both contributors, corporations are profit-seeking entities that use codes as public relations tools rather than for the benefit of workers.

Others workers’ rights activists see a potential for workers to benefit from codes. On the basis of her work with women workers in Central America, Lynda Yanz identifies wages and job security as the primary concerns of workers. Codes can be beneficial, she argues, but only if they are developed from the ground up, incorporating workers’ priorities and educating workers about their rights in the process. In an interview, activist Medea Benjamin tells Human Rights Dialogue that the significance of corporate participation in protecting workers’ rights cannot be underplayed: It represents a success on the part of the NGO community in forcing MNCs to acknowledge their responsibility to protect workers’ rights. However, Benjamin warns against putting too much emphasis on corporate self-regulation. Although codes represent a step in the right direction, governments and international bodies should ultimately control the workers’ rights agenda by regulating companies through national and eventually international legislation.

Codes that hang unobtrusively on a factory wall, and that are not translated into the local language, disseminated to workers, or enforced, do little to create awareness among workers of their rights. On the other hand, codes developed with the participation of workers that address their concerns and are effectively monitored can raise workers’ awareness of their rights and motivate them to defend those rights. But codes of conduct can also have serious repercussions for workers. As Benjamin explains, it is common for workers to be fired, beaten, jailed, or blacklisted for attempting to secure the rights they learned of through codes of conduct. Such negative consequences generate cynicism among workers about the utility of human rights.

A growing awareness among labor and human rights activists concerning the need to balance job security with improved working conditions may, however, lead to greater worker involvement in code initiatives and stronger, more effective codes. Yanz discovered that women workers in Central America want codes to contain commitments from companies not to pick up and leave when workers demand their rights. Relating his experiences with the student movement against sweatshops in the United States, David Moore explains that the Worker Rights Consortium works in close partnership with workers and reserves its strictest punishments for code violations such as mass layoffs designed to intimidate workers. Code campaigns that empower workers and educate them about their rights, Moore argues, allow consumers to speak with a unified voice and make a real difference in targeted areas, such as college apparel production.

This issue of Dialogue also reveals that the relationships among other key actors, particularly unions, NGOs, and MNCs, are as important to the success of codes as the codes themselves. Andy Banks of the AFL-CIO reminds us that trade unions have been the traditional protectors of workers’ rights and internal monitors of working conditions. Codes of conduct that provide minimum standards for job security, the right to organize, and the right to collective bargaining—that primarily strengthen trade unions—allow labor to maintain its control of the workers’ rights agenda. Human rights organizations, by contrast, do not have the knowledge, expertise, or structure to enforce codes, but they can strengthen the labor movement through their networks, credibility, and capacity to respond. Trade unions generally recognize the value of codes of conduct, as long as they remain a supplement and not an alternative to the labor movement.

Whereas Banks acknowledges the divisions between trade unions and NGOs over codes of conduct, Lance Compa gives greater insight into the reality of tensions on the ground. These tensions stem from each community’s perceptions and suspicions of the other’s motivations, strategies, and accountability. While labor and human rights movements share the common goals of improving working conditions and protecting workers’ rights, he argues, they must work together so as not to undermine these goals.

We close this issue of Human Rights Dialogue with an article by Wharton School of Business professor Thomas Donaldson presenting the corporate perspective on workplace codes. As a consultant to a number of multinational corporations on their business ethics, Donaldson examines corporate goals and strategies in adopting codes of conduct. In contrast to Frost and Duong, he rejects the idea that profit concerns alone motivate the behavior of corporations. Unlike Benjamin, he argues that voluntary codes have proved more effective than those forced on corporations by NGOs, the UN, or the ILO. Only if corporations and their workers develop codes together, and therefore have ownership of them, will this human rights tool protect the rights of workers.

Read More: Human Rights, Labor Rights, World Economy, Human Rights, International Trade, Labor Rights and the Global Economy

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