Germany’s G7 social supply chain agenda calls for more positive business and union attitudes

UN - Palais Wilson in GenevaPalais Wilson in Geneva is the UN human rights headquarters. The UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights created a solid basis on which Germany's G7 Presidency can now try to launch a new and more socially responsible approach to global supply chains. Geneva is also the home of the global social dialogue and tripartite cooperation at the International Labour Organisation ILO. Governments and the social partners need to see to it that they use the opportunity that they now have thanks to the German government and bring justice and humanity to the people who produce much of what the more well to do parts of the world consume.

The German Presidency of the G7 Group of leading industrialised countries deserves much appreciation for their activity in supporting human rights and better labour conditions in global supply chains. The Summit on Sunday and Monday at Schloss Elmau in Bavaria could set conditions that drive real improvements in conditions which still are unacceptably bad in many producing countries. At a G7 Conference earlier this spring in Berlin, where I participated on behalf of the Global Organic Textile Standard GOTS, the German development and labour ministers Gerd Müller and Andrea Nahles made their country’s commitment to improve supply chain conditions very clear. This has been repeatedly confirmed by Chancellor Angela Merkel herself in the run up to this weekend’s G7 Summit.

The obligation to ensure proper living and labour conditions for supply chain workers and their families is of course with the national governments, and the employers directly concerned. This does not mean that the international community would be free of responsibility and lack influence. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are quite clear about this, both when it comes to government and business.

As labour conditions in general, the basic protection of supply chain workers should be set through legislation. This comprises the universal human rights conventions and includes the fundamental rights as defined in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Woirk and its Core Conventions which forbid child labour, forced labour and discrimination. Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining is also one of these fundamental rights, although all too many employers conveniently try to forget it.

It is obvious that the G7 countries and others need to put effective legislation in place to ensure that businesses based in these countries respect these norms also when they are active abroad. This would be welcome also for those responsible buyer companies that take their supply chain commitment seriously as it would create a level playing field where good corporate behaviour would not hurt their competitiveness. This follow up to the UN Guiding Principles is in fact already in motion in many industrialised countries, large and small.

All the necessary elements for decent work are not covered by the UN Guiding Principles or Core ILO Conventions. This we can see also by looking at leading supply chain codes and standards such as the GSCP Reference Code or the SA8000 Social Standard – and many of the Fairtrade Standards – which are much more complete.

Labour legislation can define minimum requirements and thus hinder at least the most serious forms of rights violations and exploitation that could push also general conditions down. In a developed industrial relations system, laws are completed by employers and trade unions through collective agreements and social dialogue on different levels.

We are still very far from this in most important producer regions and it could take very long before local tripartite structures would bear the responsibility for regulating wages and conditions. This is of course a main reason that the UN Guiding Principles has come about.

Here we need public-private partnerships, to help make good intentions and principles into reality. The German authorities have clearly understood this and involved brands and retailers, trade unions and other stakeholders. Hopefully the business and trade union communities will also grow up to the challenge. They need to cooperate on these supply chain issues even when other interests may pitch them against each other.

Both business and unions have indeed been active as the G7 Summit comes closer.

We have seen some concrete commitments from leading businesses, in addition to general support statements for Germany’s G7 initiatives. Leading global food brands and retailers have promised to take concrete action to help realize the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which will be formally agreed on later this year. In a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel on behalf of the 400 Consumer Goods Forum member companies, the CEOs of Royal Ahold and Nestle commit these leading retailers and food brands to acting concretely to help secure and improve human rights and labour conditions in global supply chains.

These companies will now have to deliver on their promises which I am very optimistic about. The Global Social Compliance Programme GSCP, which works independently but is hosted by the Consumer Goods Forum, will have to play an important coordinating and supporting role. The corporate social responsibility CSR schemes and initiatives will be important tools and resources for practical on the ground work.

Maybe also the International Trade Union Confederation ITUC needs to take a new look at what CSR organisations such as SAI SA8000, ETI, FWF, BSCI and others are doing today. They have nothing to do with the paternalist approach to human resource management that sometimes has been labelled as corporate social responsibility. The CSR organisations which all involve civil society and build on third party verification of conditions in the supply chain have their main focus on capacity building and remediation of conditions at supplier workplaces. All of them have codes or standards that are clear on supporting freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Sometimes it is difficult for me to understand why they are not mobilised to support efforts to organise workers, gain employer recognition and negotiate fair and decent conditions.

It is equally important that buying brands and retailers and the business community more broadly understand how important it is in supplier countries that workers can organise freely and that proper structures and practices for collective agreement negotiations and social dialogue are established.


About the Author

Jan Furstenborg
I started my working life as education secretary for the Finnish secondary students' association Suomen Teiniliitto in 1967. From 1969 to 1986 I was employed by the Finnish trade union movement and held many different positions in the commercial workers' union. In 1986 I started to work for FIET, one of the predecessors and founders of the present UNI Global Union. At first I worked with organisation development and education in the developing world and was actively engaged in the integration of unions in the new market economies of Central and Eastern Europe. At the end of 2009 I left my position as Head of UNI Commerce Global Union where I was responsible for the Global and European trade union work and the sector social dialogue within EU and with leading multinationals. Since then I have worked with governments, standard organisations, companies, trade unions, and others to promote social responsibility, environmental sustainability, dialogue and partnership. I have retained my longstanding membership on the Advisory Board (now through the Founders Committee) and the Board of Directors of Social Accountability International SAI, known for its SA8000 Social Standard. I am also member of the Advisory Board of the Global Social Compliance Programme GSCP where I have participated actively in the work since the initiative was launched. Early 2015 I was invited by the Global Organic Textile Standard GOTS to advise them on social and labour issues as a member of their Technical Committee. In addition, I am a member of the Stakeholder Board of the newly established Association of Professional Social Compliance Auditors APSCA. I share my time between Helsinki, Finland and Founex, Switzerland.