By Judy Gearhart, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Forum
This week the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released a new report that adds to the growing body of evidence that certifications need added safeguards to ensure they are legally accountable to workers in the supply chains they monitor.
The report, titled Aiding and Abetting, exposes how Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), which certifies companies using the Fair for Life label, branded Theo Chocolate, a Seattle-based chocolate company, with its fair trade label despite being informed by Theo workers that the company had hired an anti-union consultant and was violating the international labor standards promoted by Fair For Life during a union organizing campaign.
Shortly after we released the report Theo Chocolate issued a statement disputing the report’s findings.
Theo’s response to our report was expected. The report is based on interviews with workers whose organizing drive was thwarted, so it does not surprise us that Theo management has a different perspective. In such cases management often seeks to portray grievances raised as those of a disgruntled few. Yet several things remain unexplained about the Theo case.
What happened at Theo after two-thirds of workers formally expressed an interest in forming a union that would push the majority of workers to sign a petition against unionizing within a year? Why did Theo hire a consultant who advertised his services in union-avoidance strategies? And how can a fair trade auditor paid by management objectively review a complaint by workers about management?
Answers to these questions cannot be determined via an ILRF delegation to Theo’s factory organized by Theo management, as suggested by Joe Whinney, Theo Chocolate CEO. Nor is ILRF as an outside party in a position to resolve the dispute. It must be noted however, that the ILRF’s report is not a demand that Theo workers be forced to organize.
The recommendations in Aiding and Abetting are intended to balance out Theo’s past communications to workers about unions and organizing, in short an equalizing follow-up to Theo having hired ACG, which publicized its union-avoidance consulting services on its website. The only way for Theo to repair the damage done during Theo management’s anti-union drive would be to enter into a dialogue with the union in order to establish an agreement that would create an environment in which workers could organize, if they so choose, without fear of retaliation. Then workers would be able to choose for themselves if and how to organize.
Sadly, Theo’s use of union busting tactics and Theo management’s unwillingness to atone for labor rights violations is typical in the United States.
The core recommendation of the report is directed toward IMO which neglected to intervene to uphold its commitment to fair trade standards as the Theo case played out. The Theo case illustrates how certification bodies, paid directly by employers, can harm efforts by workers to unionize rather than help them. It also shows how workers, seeking to use certification codes and processes constructively, are put at a disadvantage when there is no transparency around the grievance process and no independent appeal of findings from a certifier’s investigation. To be sure, the workers should have filed with the National Labor Relations Board, but their employer had committed – in the language of the Fair for Life code – to maintain an open attitude towards unions. Filing a legal complaint would have been a more aggressive approach than trying to work through the certification process, which promised to ensure remedies for violations of the code.
In response to the Theo case, IMO Fair for Life actually diluted its standards. Currently, IMO’s code encourages employers to hire consultants to talk to workers about the advantages and possible disadvantages of unionization; effectively sanctioning management interference with workers’ organizing decisions. This approach does nothing to ensure that employers are kept from seeking to influence workers’ organizing decisions.
Our vision is to establish a process that could serve any labor rights certification and monitoring program; a proposal for creating a more credible and independent mechanism for reviewing investigations by certifying organizations in cases where workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively are at risk. Specifically, we believe fair trade certifiers should make their auditing results transparent and establish an “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal” to assess and remedy instances where fair trade organizations mishandle cases involving allegations of workers’ rights violations. By addressing the inherent conflict-of-interest created when monitors are paid by the company they audit, the proposed solution will provide workers a useful tool in their efforts to win dignified treatment in the workplace.
Although the ILRF has no financial stake in the fair trade movement, we are interested in ensuring that the fair trade movement maintains a higher standard than more mainstream codes of conduct. And as there are now a growing number of fair trade certified work places with wage laborers, we want to make sure the fair trade community fully understands what it means to ensure workers’ rights to organize.
If the fair trade movement gets this right, they’ll win on two levels: the movement will stay true to their mission; and it will build a bridge to another social movement that is also concerned with building collective power: the labor movement.