Corporate goodwill and angry women | ActionAid UK

Corporate goodwill and angry women

Ruth Kelly

Programme Policy Manager

Last week Oxfam and DFID hosted a NGO-private sector roundtable on women’s empowerment in agricultural supply chains. The discussion brought together cutting-edge thinkers and do-ers in the corporate accountability field. It was impressive to see what can be achieved through the goodwill of progressive companies. But do we need to go beyond this, harnessing the power of angry women, before we see sector-wide change?

Cambodian garment workers take to the catwalk to demand decent work and dignity from big brands
Cambodian garment workers take to the catwalk to demand decent work and dignity from big brands

Assessing companies’ poverty footprint

At the moment, governments and customers usually rely on certification schemes to tell them whether or not a company is ethical. These schemes are far from perfect. There is no guarantee that auditors do a particularly good job of assessing compliance – and lots of anecdotal evidence to suggest that they don’t. Certification schemes miss issues that are really important for women workers: the precarity of women’s work, violence against women in the workplace, the impact of unpaid care burdens on women’s opportunities, and more.

Oxfam’s poverty footprint methodology has been at the cutting-edge of alternatives to certification. It’s a rigorous tool for drilling down through a supply chain, looking at the impact of core business practices on poverty. The companies involved give Oxfam access to information that is not publically available. Even more interesting, the results are published in reports that are fairly critical of those companies.

But there are limits to doing a company-by-company analysis of what’s wrong and how to fix it. Those implementing the recommendations are not always the ones responsible for the company’s core work. The analysis is slow, expensive and rarely drives sector-wide change.

Looking at problems across an entire sector

The problems identified in a poverty footprint analysis are hardly ever unique to that company – they are usually endemic across a given sector. Maybe we don’t need to look at these issues one company at a time. By the end of last week’s discussion, there was a lot of support for analysing an entire sector or geographical area instead.

In 2007, ActionAid tried to do something a bit like this for the UK supermarket industry. While supermarkets’ supply chains encompass more than one sector, there are enough common elements to make an analysis of multiple supply chains interesting. Our research showed that pressure from UK supermarkets for lower prices, faster delivery times and greater flexibility is passed on to workers in the form of low wages, job insecurity and a denial of their basic human rights. Business associations campaigned with us to change the law in response.

It would be great to see a more in-depth and sector-specific version of this type of research, especially if the researchers could access privileged information directly from suppliers.

But I’m not sure that this is what those at last week’s roundtable had in mind. In discussing how to empower women in supply chains, there was a lot of attention paid to the need for crucial on-the-ground changes. Women should receive training and not just their male colleagues. Childcare should be made available to mitigate unpaid care burdens. Women should be paid more. Interventions to support women must go beyond the economic sphere and address social inequalities.

The responsibility of UK retailers to have more realistic expectations of suppliers never came up.

Powerful multinationals and collective bargaining

One of the reasons that NGOs spend so much time talking to multinationals is that these companies have a lot of power. Most agricultural value chains are made up of a few powerful players in the middle and many, many small players at the bottom. Suppliers don’t have many options when faced with unrealistic requests. And neither do women workers.

The same economic liberalisation that has given a handful of multinationals so much power has undermined the power of trade unions to negotiate for better conditions.

Empowered women should be able to reject the incremental changes a progressive company is offering and argue for something they want more instead. Think Made in Dagenham for the 21st century. As we recently saw in Cambodia, angry women can drive sector-wide change where corporate goodwill has failed.

It feels strange to promote women’s economic empowerment without giving women real power to bargain for economic equality for themselves. Participants in last week’s discussion were willing to listen to women’s concerns, but we need to go much further than this. Let’s hope that angry women feature more prominently in Parliament’s International Development Committee inquiry into jobs and livelihoods over the next few weeks.

Read more about activism by Cambodian garment workers here.

Siv Channa, Cambodia Daily