Interview with Medea Benjamin

Human Rights Dialogue: What role do nongovernmental organizations play in codes of conduct initiatives?

Medea Benjamin: NGOs have been instrumental in getting companies to adopt codes, in pushing for stronger codes, and in pressuring companies not to monitor the enforcement of their codes solely through organizations such as accounting firms, which we feel don’t have the trust of workers or adequate sensitivity to do a meaningful job. NGOs have pushed this process all along and we are continuing to push it. There are many NGOs that have participated in and been at the forefront of defining independent monitoring. NGOs also have challenged companies to work with groups that they would normally see as their adversaries, such as local labor rights organizations or more militant women’s organizations, and some of these experiments have actually been quite positive. This whole process is being pushed by an alliance of workers’ rights groups in the countries where the factories are located and workers or human rights groups in developed countries. Unfortunately, the process has been pushed more by the consumer end than by the worker end. But there’s a real effort being made now by NGOs in the North to partner with NGOs in the South.

Dialogue: What role does consumer pressure play in this process?

Benjamin: Consumer pressure is incredibly important and has been the driving force behind a lot of the anti-sweatshop movement. Unfortunately, most of the workers are in countries where they can’t speak out, or they’re not informed of their rights, or they live in fear. In these instances, it is the voice of consumers that is beginning to open up the space for workers to speak out and to organize. This consumer-worker alliance that is being built into the process is quite extraordinary, and in the long term it will lead to major changes in the way that the rules of the global economy are written.

Dialogue: What sort of differences exist between the perspectives on codes of NGOs in the North versus those in the South?

Benjamin: In the North we see codes as a positive step forward. Companies have at least recognized responsibility through codes. They no longer claim, as they did in the early 1990s, that they are just the buyers and can’t be held responsible for conditions in suppliers’ factories. In the South many workers’ rights groups see codes as a justification for not doing anything substantive, as a smoke screen. They think codes have never been disseminated in a serious way to workers, and that often they are not just meaningless, but actually harmful because they give companies cover. I have visited many factories around the world that produce for U.S. companies that have adopted codes of conduct. The factories are supposed to post the code in a visible location and explain its contents to the workers, but many times the code is simply not posted or is posted in English when workers don’t speak English. The last time I saw a code in a factory in Mexico, it was placed so high up on the wall that you couldn’t even read it. I don’t think that most companies have been very serious about translating the codes into reality on the ground, and most workers I talk to have never heard of the code of conduct. We have put too much emphasis on codes, and probably too much emphasis on voluntary enforcement. It is untenable to expect companies to voluntarily enforce their codes. What we have right now, with corporations regulating themselves through codes of conduct, is definitely an interim measure.

Dialogue: How can workplace codes be improved to more effectively address workers’ concerns?

Benjamin: Codes can be improved on several levels. One is the content of the code itself. I don’t know of any code that includes a living wage, and many codes don’t include freedom of association or address gender discrimination. Codes should also contain a guarantee from companies that workers who struggle to enforce the code will not be retaliated against. More important is the enforcement of the codes, which requires workers’ understanding of the codes. Certainly there could be a lot more ongoing educational sessions to teach workers about the content of the code, how that code is to be enforced, and what role workers can play in the process.

Dialogue: How do codes of conduct address the issue of child labor?

Benjamin: The way to address the issue of child labor is through the living wage. If parents earned living wages they wouldn’t feel the desperate need to send their children to work. The greatest flaw in the codes of conduct is that they don’t call for a living wage.

Dialogue: How are NGOs involved with workplace codes accountable to workers and representative of their concerns?

Benjamin: Many NGOs have tried to involve workers themselves more in the process. Some organizations employ former workers as the core of their staff or as spokespeople. Others use workers for specific tasks, for example, having workers themselves carry out surveys about workers’ issues. At Global Exchange, we have garment workers speak for us when we go around the country talking about issues such as working conditions and workers’ rights.

Any training program developed by an NGO must be carried out in a way that workers can relate to. In the past you would often find that the people running these training programs were not the workers themselves, but were one or two times removed. These training programs also should take place at the factories themselves so that workers understand that management has agreed to it and that there will not be repercussions for participating.

Dialogue: What is the relationship between NGOs involved in codes of conduct and labor unions and other worker organizations? What would you say to the argument that strengthening unions would be a more effective method to protect workers’ rights than codes of conduct?

Benjamin: I think that is true. In the end the only ones who can stand up for workers’ rights are workers themselves, and so it certainly makes sense to improve the atmosphere so that unions and any other kind of worker associations can organize. Monitors come and go, NGOs come and go, and who is left in the factories but the workers?

Some unions feel that codes of conduct and NGOs are usurping the power of or the need for unions. I think this tension will continue to grow and has to be resolved in some way. We should be using codes to promote unions and not to take over their role. Then there is the whole question of how unions in the United States, for example, could do more to promote free and independent union organizing overseas. Unions in this country have traditionally worked in a more protectionist mode, but now they have come to recognize that there is no way they can improve wages and working conditions in the garment industry here in the United States if they don’t work in solidarity with unions overseas.

Unfortunately in many countries, like China, strong unions don’t exist at this moment. China, in fact, is one of the biggest problems. It is hard to talk about this process as a movement in a positive direction internationally when you have a country like China that has so many workers and on the sheer weight of its population can bring down the working conditions in its whole region. Workers in China are not allowed to organize into independent trade unions—they can only be part of the government-led union which does almost nothing to protect workers’ rights. There is also the migrant labor situation in China where workers are coming from thousands of miles away—14, 15, 16-year-old girls who have never worked in a factory before, who are totally unaware of their rights, living in constant fear, getting to see their families once a year. China is such a distorted model of development, but it has become a huge part of the production process.

Dialogue: What strategies would work in China?

Benjamin: At Global Exchange, we have never really set up ongoing partnerships with companies; we have worked more as a watchdog group. But since China is a unique case, we couldn’t think of anything else but to work with companies. So we started a group with Mattel, Levi Strauss, and Reebok to come up with a set of principles for companies working in China, and then began to set some realistic goals of what we could accomplish as NGOs and companies working together. We have developed research projects to look at the needs of migrant workers and the particular problems they face in factories—having to pay deposits and recruitment fees to get jobs, having fines taken out of workers’ salaries—issues that are particular to China and the migrant labor system. We are coming up with some basic regulations that companies would impose on themselves.

Dialogue: What measures, methods, or initiatives exist other than codes and unions to improve workers’ rights?

Benjamin: I think the next step is legislation. So far only a small number of companies have been publicly reprimanded for labor problems, and they tend to be the companies with bigger brand names. But what about all the other companies that have not been exposed or touched by this process? Some of the name-brand companies are saying, “This is not fair—let’s have a level playing field.” This is why the time is ripe for legislation. With companies calling for a level playing field, so much student enthusiasm, and a louder call for fair trade in the wake of the WTO protests, we could put our Congress on the line and pressure it to support national legislation that promotes fair trade and forces U.S. companies to adhere to ILO standards. I can see in the coming years, for example, U.S. legislation that focuses on health and safety issues in factories anywhere in the world. Once U.S. companies have to abide by these regulations, we can say, What about French companies? What about Japanese companies? Pressure would build for a level playing field—for international legislation. Unfortunately, we still don’t have bodies at the international level with sanctioning power around workers’ rights—the ILO has all kinds of conventions on workers’ rights but no way to enforce them, and the WTO has no mechanism to protect workers’ rights. There is pressure within this country for the United States to agree to an international body with enforcement power, but we are still a long way from actually achieving this.

Dialogue: How can NGO involvement with workplace codes compromise or enhance their organizational goals and activities?

Benjamin: There is currently a lot of soul searching on the part of NGOs concerning the role that they want to play in this process. Some groups feel that they don’t want to be sucked into a system where the power dynamic is ultimately in the hands of the company, and they don’t want to compromise their legitimacy by entering into a partnership with corporations. On the other hand, some NGOs claim that somebody has to do this job, and that if it is not their organization, then it will be organizations that are more pro-company and less worker-friendly. NGOs should always be true to their original goals and be ready to pull out at any moment, in a public manner that denounces the process itself, if they feel that they are being used in the process rather than using the process for the betterment of workers’ lives.

Certainly Global Exchange has had firsthand experience of this question working with Nike. We were accused by other NGOs of getting too close, of compromising too much. They criticized us for even sitting at the table and commending Nike on some changes that the company had made. They felt that these changes were minimal and that by giving Nike such positive reinforcement, we hurt the anti-sweatshop movement’s chances of bringing about real change. It forced us to step back and re-evaluate the process and see if the gains were greater than the possible losses. This is happening with NGOs all around the world. But it is a slippery slope. You start to work with companies and you find that the people are nice, that some of them are really trying to improve conditions. You start to feel like you have a good relationship, and sometimes it becomes hard to step out and question whether you are making a significant change, whether you could make a bigger difference if you were in the adversarial position.

Dialogue: Do you think that codes of conduct allow corporations to dictate the workers’ human rights agenda?

Benjamin: It is important to talk more about international codes rather than codes that each company designs. Most codes of conduct are based on internationally recognized rights, on the International Labor Organization’s own standards. These codes have been forced on companies. The companies did not want to have the codes, so the code itself is not the companies’ agenda.

Dialogue: What role does human rights language play in the work NGOs are doing with codes at the local level? What sort of impact, if any, are workplace codes of conduct having on workers’ notions of human rights?

Benjamin: Many NGOs are doing a lot of important work developing training programs to inform workers of their human rights. But this is not necessarily based around codes of conduct. It informs workers of their human rights vis-à-vis their local labor laws, international treaties, everything from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to ILO conventions to specific codes. Many NGOs frame codes as just one more document that explains to workers their rights. In many countries the local labor law is actually as good as the code, it’s just not being enforced. Most workers are totally unaware of codes. NGO involvement has increased workers’ awareness that labor rights are human rights according to national and international law and company codes, and it is beginning to give more legitimacy to union organizing in the context of human rights.

Dialogue: Do codes of conduct sometimes have a negative impact on workers’ notions of human rights?

Benjamin: Yes. I can think of case after case where workers have been informed of their rights through codes of conduct, but when they tried to secure those rights they were fired, beaten, jailed, or blacklisted. There is not a week that goes by when we are not informed of workers in one place or another who have been fired for standing up for their right to organize a union, or their right to increase their wages, or to get a fair wage, or even their right to enforce the local labor law. When workers stand up for their rights and don’t get them and then suffer a backlash, they often become cynical about rights and about codes.

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

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