How cooperation can tackle complexity and elevate worker voices
Factory workers at a cut and sew facility.
Rick Relinger, Vice President of Human Rights and Operations at PVH, has a firm belief in the potential of fashion to be a positive force in the world.
“There are 300 million jobs in the fashion industry supply chain,” he explains adding: “The industry can be a source of inclusive economic growth and decent work, providing opportunities for people in developing countries when companies work to fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights.”
However, there are problems in fashion’s complex, global supply chain. People can face poor and unsafe working conditions; they may lack labor rights and a large number come from vulnerable populations, such as female and migrant workers. Relinger is clear that positive change doesn’t happen on its own, “It’s important to have a clear vision. That’s why our ambition is for 100% of our products and packaging to be ethically sourced, and for 100% of our suppliers to respect human rights and be good employers. There is a long way to go but our commitment to amplifying worker voices is the first step on that journey.”
The complexity of the supply chain also means it is not necessarily simple for apparel companies to improve workers’ rights, pay and conditions. Making a commitment to workers and setting goals is often the easy part. Ensuring hundreds of suppliers – in many different countries and cultures – comply with international labor standards is where things get hard. Especially when they may have many apparel company customers with their own demands and requirements. A new, cooperative approach to improving working conditions is a step toward solving that challenge.
Run in partnership with Better Work, a joint initiative of the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation, PVH’s workplace cooperation program is designed to elevate and amplify workers’ voices and bring factory managers and workers together to identify and solve shared problems. The first step has been to run workplace communication training at 46 of PVH’s most strategic factories to improve dialogue within factories and help identify common ground and goals for improvement. The goal for 2019 is to run additional programs to facilitate the creation of democratically elected worker management committees. Those committee members will then be trained to identify the root causes of problems and create their own solutions.
Zoe Zheng, a CR Advisor for PVH based in Shanghai, is excited at the new approach. It is based on a simple but powerful idea. As she explains: “People who work in factories are closest to any problems there may be and, often, they’re the best people to suggest solutions.”
A cotton spinning mill.
Zheng is familiar with the traditional industry approach to auditing. Before joining PVH six years ago, she worked as an auditor for several years – visiting factories and assessing their performance to check if they were compliant with agreed standards.
For her, a job as an auditor offered a purposeful and rewarding career. “When I graduated, a friend told me about it and I was interested in being able to help workers and travel around the country,” Zheng recalls.
Although she liked the work, the role could be challenging at times. “In my previous job, it could be hard to build trust,” she confesses, adding “Auditing is about finding problems, and telling people what is wrong and how to fix them.”
There are other limitations of an “assessment only” auditing approach that Zheng shares. “Assessments were useful for identifying issues, but they only allowed us to see what was happening on the days we visited – it was just a snapshot. It was hard to ensure that management was going to engage workers collaboratively on improvements,” she explains.
With the new workplace cooperation program, her role and that of her colleagues has shifted –from being auditors to becoming trusted advisors. And although the approach is still relatively new, she is enthusiastic about the possibilities. “This program is helping us build trust with our suppliers who see that we are there to make things better for everyone. I believe we can help worker and management representatives work better together and find some great solutions.”