A Labor Viewpoint on Workplace Codes of Conduct

Joaquin Escobar* is a banana worker, and one of 18,000 union members in Colombia’s banana industry. He makes only $11 a day, but because of his union’s contract with Chiquita, Joaquin and others who labor long hours on Colombia’s banana plantations make the best benefits (such as retirement and family health care) of the 45,000 unionized banana workers in Latin America. But Joaquin is not happy. It’s not the backbreaking work that upsets him. It’s what is happening in Ecuador.

Hector Lopez* makes $2.50 a day as one of Ecuador’s 225,000 banana workers who suffer under a brutal and environmentally dangerous production system dominated by Noboa, the fourth-largest banana exporter in the world. Unlike the banana industry in the rest of Latin America, Ecuador’s is nonunion.

Chiquita and other banana traders have told their unions in Latin America that the growing market share from Ecuador means that they cannot compete in the world market. In the face of overproduction and low-wage competition from Ecuador, Chiquita and Dole are rumored to be seeking buyers for their banana operations. If this happens, the companies will be laying off Joaquin and tens of thousands of other unionized banana workers in Latin America, quickly reducing them and their communities to abject poverty.

To Latin American banana unionists and their activist allies in the United States and Europe, the options are few and clear: improve the horrible human rights conditions for banana workers in Ecuador to stabilize the jobs and working conditions of Joaquin Escobar and other banana workers in the region. The banana workers in Ecuador must be allowed to unionize.

The plight of banana workers is a common scenario in the global economy. It hardly matters which industry we look at. This situation highlights the need for a new type of international trade union action: the code of conduct campaign. Such campaigns, organized by social justice, human rights, student, and religious groups around the world, provide two benefits: a new strategy for unions in dealing with the effects of globalization on workers, and a much-needed convergence of forces between trade unions and others fighting the brutal consequences of unregulated corporate hegemony.

Worker empowerment is and always has been the most enduring way to end poverty and correct abusive workplace conditions. The traditional method of worker empowerment, and the only one that has proved effective, is the self-organization of workers into unions. To empower workers we must open space for workers to organize democratic unions, independent of government or employer domination. The right to form unions is not simply one of many codes that need to be sought: It is the primary one.

The core work of unions is organizing, bargaining collectively, and enforcing collective agreements. Enforcement is essentially a monitoring process whereby a shop floor structure of union activists—called shop stewards, delegates, or factory committees—watches for employer violations of a collective agreement negotiated between the employer and the union. For a union adequately to enforce a collective agreement, it must systematically assign shop stewards or delegates from each work area and shift covered by that agreement. Only through an on-the-job union structure can all workers stay informed and organized and can the union be instantly aware of violations. Stewards and delegates (who are workers themselves) are accountable not only to their immediate fellow workers but also to the rest of the workforce through the union structure. Worldwide, there are from 15 to 20 million shop stewards and delegates.

Unionists are far from reaching consensus on external monitoring and codes of conduct. Some feel that codes are an employer's tool—a co-optation of real unionization efforts and a cheap substitute for collective bargaining. Some fear that monitoring by NGOs undermines the bargaining process and forces workers into a dependent relationship with those NGOs.

Other unionists see codes and monitoring as promotions of the "international community." This community is composed of staff and elected officials from international offices of national union centers, ILO staff, and some labor-oriented NGOs. With the end of the Cold War, these organizations have been in search of a new mission. Suspicions of careerist or turf-promoting motives underlie some unionists' skepticism about the creation of a new international profession of certified "social auditors."

Still a third set of unionists sees the code of conduct movement as essential for building future international collective bargaining structures, which are essential to the survival of unions everywhere. According to this third group, codes should provide minimum standards in three key areas: job security, the right to organize, and the right to collective bargaining. Most violations of workers’ human rights occur in these three areas. These unionists seek to negotiate codes that meet the needs of workers who are trying either to establish unions or to maintain or strengthen a long-term union relationship with the same company. Although these unionists insist that unions themselves monitor the codes, they also greatly value the assistance of pro-union NGOs, especially in locations such as Ecuador, where union structures are nonexistent or weak.

Monitoring programs need the assistance and guidance of the social justice community in three fundamental ways. First, national and international monitoring oversight boards with representation from human rights, student, religious, women's rights, and environmental organizations need to be established to give trade union monitoring efforts the high-profile protection that comes only from these groups. Second, targeted union campaigns for trade union rights must continue to benefit from the ability of social justice organizations to mobilize activists against corporations where their important global markets exist, usually in industrialized countries. Finally, human rights professionals are sorely needed to help train trade unionists on the nuances and skills required in credible monitoring programs.

There is growing but unnecessary tension between trade unionists and human rights organizations seeking to provide support for workers’ rights. True, as unionists argue, human rights groups do not have the knowledge, expertise or structure of unions, nor do they have the power for organizing and collective bargaining that trade unions can provide with the collective strength of millions of union members acting in solidarity. But human rights organizations have vast networks of committed activists, public credibility and appeal, rapid response capacity, and other skills that are sorely needed by trade unions. The mere presence of human rights activists in certain repressive areas can mean the difference between survival and extinction for nascent trade unions.

Activity around codes of conduct and external monitoring systems, while often useful, is nonetheless best viewed as transitional to—and weaker than—the bargaining and contract-enforcing activity of trade unions. Codes and monitoring systems should facilitate, not impede or be substituted for, the establishment of functioning worker-controlled trade union enforcement and organizing structures. In short, the goal of codes and monitoring programs should be worker empowerment through union building. Standards—such as those relating to child labor, discrimination, safety and health, or a living wage—should be included in codes. But, as important as those issues are, they are secondary to, and will follow from the first-order task of, altering the imbalance of power between workers and employers.

As of this writing a worldwide campaign to set minimum standards for all Latin American banana workers and to protect Ecuadorian workers’ efforts at unionization is still in the discussion stage. The talks are being directed by COCIBIL, an organization of Latin American banana workers unions. COCIBIL is being supported by IUF, a global federation of food and agricultural workers unions, and two sympathetic human rights organizations with experience in consumer campaigns: US/LEAP in the United States and EUROBAN in Europe. They have made no final decision on how to bring unionization to Ecuadorian banana workers or how to protect the job security of workers in the predominantly unionized banana plantations in the rest of Latin America. One idea being discussed is a workers’ rights agreement, a hybrid code of conduct negotiated between exporters and banana unions and tied to a union label for banana customers to see before purchasing.

In addition to obtaining basic labor rights for workers, this type of code campaign can also provide a reinvigorated global labor movement with a platform to work with social justice and environmental organizations. Such alliances are prerequisite to an even more ambitious task: the democratization of the global economy. Only when human rights groups support grassroots union efforts to build international monitoring and campaign structures will Joaquin Escobar and Hector Lopez be able to work together to build better lives.


*The real names of workers have not been used in this article.

Read More: Labor Rights, International Trade, Labor Rights and the Global Economy, Latin America/Caribbean

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