chain2Following on from discussions with network members last year, we’ve been talking with the good folk at LabourStart about the creation of a new organisation: provisionally named The Fair Work Foundation. This body would aim to address the problem of weak or fraudulent labour standards. It would do so in two ways:

1) Fair Work Certified Standards
The Foundation would evaluate the labour standards conditions and auditing practices of private standards organizations. This would be done with an aim to certifying those that represent effective, good faith attempts to positively encourage and facilitate independent worker organization and collective bargaining.

2) Fair Work: Union Made
The Foundation would establish a new social label to certify that the workers who produce a labelled product or service do so in a unionized workplace where wages and conditions of employment are set via collective bargaining.

While these two initiatives cannot substitute for robust labour law, we believe they could be important as a means of promoting collective industrial relations. We invite all members of the Network to read of this proposal, drafted by member Dr Conor Cradden, and let us know what you think. Better still, let us know if you’d like to be involved in making it happen.

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Private labour standards regulation and union labels

Over the last twenty-five years, many new types of non-state or private regulation have emerged. These take a wide range of different forms, but what they have in common is that they demand compliance with a set of social and/or environmental standards. In return, they offer some kind of market incentive — be it finance, export contracts, access to premium-price markets or simply improved corporate reputation. Unlike state regulation, the application of private regulation is voluntary. Businesses choose to participate in certification schemes or to sign contracts that include social and environmental performance conditions. So, for example, any business that wants to be a supplier to IBM must demonstrate that it complies with the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition code of conduct. Wood products businesses that want to use the Forestry Stewardship Council label have to show that the wood they use comes from forests managed according to the relevant FSC national standard. Businesses that want to become affiliates of the Fair Labor Association are required to implement the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct.

Even where the principal focus is on the environment or ethical corporate behaviour in a general sense, the majority of these private regulation systems include provisions on work and labour. However, serious doubts have been raised about the effectiveness of these kinds of provisions as a way of improving pay and working conditions. For example, despite Apple Corporation’s membership of the Fair Labor Association, continuing standards violations at Apple suppliers like Foxconn are well documented(1). Another recent study has shown that the International Finance Corporation’s investment conditionality has had virtually no impact on unionization and collective bargaining — that workers and unions are rarely if ever consulted in compliance auditing. Indeed, workers employed in IFC client businesses report anti-union behaviour by management in almost 40% of cases(2). Yet another study, focusing on the Responsible Jewellery Council, found that (among many other problems) the RJC’s standards for the ethical production of precious metals and stones do little to protect workers’ rights to join trade unions and do not require worker input on important issues such as working hours(3).

There are two main reasons why labour standards requirements in private regulation tend to have such little impact. The first is that workers and unions are rarely involved in the development of rules. The second is that judgements about compliance are not independently corroborated by workers and their unions all along the supply chain. The obvious way to remedy these problems is to build in worker and union representation at every stage of the development and application of standards.

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‘Fair Work Certified’ Standards

The FWC certification programme would focus on two things:

1) The involvement of workers in compliance monitoring and assessment, and

2) freedom of association.

FWC certification would guarantee that workers are systematically consulted about all work and community related aspects of regulation schemes, and that labour standards certification is not awarded against their advice.

With respect to freedom of association, the labels awarded by ‘Fair Work Certified’ regulation schemes would not be any guarantee that workers are unionized. However, they would certify that workers have a genuine opportunity to make a free choice about whether to unionize or not. This would be done according to strict criteria involving (for example) regular access to business premises by unions to recruit workers; the provision of full written information about union rights; confidential reporting systems for anti-union behaviour by employers; and recognition elections triggered by low-threshold card counts or independent assessment of worker demand for unionisation.

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The ‘Fair Work: Union Made’ label

The Fair Work: Union Made label could be awarded independently or in addition to the label of a ‘Fair Work Certified’ regulation scheme. The standard would certify that wages and working conditions are agreed through an on-going good faith bargaining relationship between the employer and an organization representing employees. This latter group should be independent and democratic and recognized as such by a global union federation or some such democratic and respected body. Such a label would serve as a guarantee that any collective bargaining agreements reached between the employers and employees reflects a fair balance between the interests of all the stakeholders of the organization.

Furthermore, it would certify that the possibility of unreasonable constraint or compulsion, whether of workers by
workers, workers by employers or employers by workers, has been excluded. The label would not be awarded without the agreement of a majority of workers.

The substance of the standard would be drawn from International Labour Organisation conventions and recommendations. These provide extensive source material for the definition of effective good faith bargaining relationships and such related matters. The two fundamental conventions involved are number 87 on freedom of association and the protection of the right to organise, and number 98 on the right to organize and collective bargaining. The details of the standard in terms of the rights and duties of union members, unions and employers, would be filled out with reference to other conventions and recommendations, together with the opinions of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations and the Committee on Freedom of Association.

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How will Fair Work Certification criteria and the Fair Work: Union Made label be developed?

We are proposing an alliance between the New Unionism Network, Labourstart and a number of recognised NGOs (all of whom work in this general area) to create the Fair Work Foundation. This body would produce a draft standard and a plan for its implementation. The drafting process would be treated as an opportunity to organize the widest possible base of support for the project.

It is our belief that the final models for Fair Work Certified and the Fair Work: Union Made label attribution should arise from the work of this Foundation, rather than being placed before it as a fait accompli. To this end we are currently seeking expressions of interest from parties that might wish to become involved.

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What do you think? Would you support the creation of such a body? Do you support the New Unionism Network’s participation? Please share your thoughts below.

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