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Better Work Partnership Highlights Successes, Outlines Current Strategy

Monday, August 25, 2014
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Aug. 21, 2014, issue of the Advisor, a weekly publication of the ST&R-TAP service, and is reprinted here with permission.]

Better Work, a joint partnership between the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation that seeks to improve compliance with labor standards in global supply chains to protect workers’ rights and help companies become more competitive, has issued a report outlining recent successes and explaining its current vision. The program presently encompasses more than 900 factories employing close to a million workers in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lesotho, Nicaragua, Jordan, Haiti, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Among other things, the report indicates that there has been a 50 percent improvement in occupational safety and health in Haiti, Jordan and Vietnam; a 19 percent decline in forced labor issues in Jordan; a 21 percent increase in workers employed with formal contracts in Vietnam; 100 percent compliance in paying correct minimum wages, paid leave and social security benefits in Jordan among factories participating in the program for more than two years; the elimination of formalized HIV/AIDS discrimination in factories in Lesotho; and 91 percent compliance by Haitian factories with legal requirements on workers’ contracts.

Better Work also claims that 65 percent of participating factories in Vietnam have seen a rise in total sales, 62 percent have increased production capacity and 60 percent have expanded employment. Improvements in working conditions in Haiti have coincided with an increase of over 40 percent in the value of apparel exports to the United States. In addition, the report indicates that Cambodian factories in compliance with fundamental rights are 56 percent more likely to retain their customers and higher compliance factories are more likely to attract high-quality buyers.

Highlights of Better Work’s Phase III strategy, which covers the period from July 2012 to

June 2015 with broader objectives to carry the program to 2017, are summarized below.

Opening New Programs. The Better Work Bangladesh project is beginning operations

and progression into other large industries is being considered.

Scaling. Better Work services are making adaptations to the model of existing country programs (primarily those with large industries) in an effort to maximize the number of participating factories and workers.

Entering New Areas of Work. Expansion includes the footwear sector in all Better Work countries that have a sizable industry.

Assuring Quality. A quality assurance system has been designed and is used to ensure Better Work services are reliable, high quality and consistent across all countries.

Evaluating Impact. The inputs of workers and managers are being gathered on an ongoing basis to assess the impact of improved compliance on workers and businesses. Better Work is using these findings to drive policy change and build evidence that good working conditions benefit both workers and business.

Increasing Focus on Core Labor Issues. In order to ensure the program advances workers’ rights in a meaningful and targeted way Better Work is intensifying efforts to address core labor issues, including discrimination, child and forced labor, and freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Influencing National Policy. Better Work is finding ways to stimulate improvements in national-level policies and systems by harnessing the program’s experiences and data. Successful examples include Vietnam’s new labor law, which includes a new regulation that requires worker-management committees largely modeled after the Performance Improvement Consultative Committees set up by Better Work. In Jordan, following training by Better Work and the ILO, employers’ associations and the trade union signed a collective bargaining agreement covering the full garment sector.

Creating the Business Case. Better Work is gathering data and research to make a compelling business case for enterprises to invest in improving working conditions. For example, the program continues its partnership with Tufts University to collect information from thousands of workers across five Better Work countries. This information is being fused with factory compliance data to measure trends between better compliance and outcomes for business and the impact of improved compliance on workers’ lives within and beyond the workplace.

Informing Global Policy. Better Work has identified areas of global public policy that could benefit from data and experience from the program.

Communicating Strategically. Better Work is accelerating its use of media platforms to communicate findings and share key materials with specific target groups.

Increasing Effectiveness of Relations. Better Work currently collaborates with 60 international apparel buyers, including many of the most iconic labels. The program has set up a buyer partnership model to make relations with buyers more accountable, transparent and focused on results. To date, a total of 23 buyers have joined as partners. The program has developed strong working relations with these buyers and offers them opportunities to provide input and interact with national stakeholders (government, employers and unions) to help ensure that progress is supported and increasingly owned at the national level.

Reaching New Buyers. In addition to ongoing work to deepen the commitment of the buyers already engaged with the program, Better Work is working to reach out to more buyers and encourage them to join. Specifically, Better Work is trying to secure the participation of more buyers from the European and emerging consumer markets while also looking at groups of factories and vendor groups based in Asia.

Boosting Viability. Larger country programs are focused on strategies to recover their funding through charging fees to factories and buyers for the services. At the same time, programs are also securing donor funding where appropriate. Where feasible, sustainability will involve transferring the delivery of Better Work’s core services (assessing, training and advisory) to independent local organizations. Planning is underway so that this can be achieved while maintaining quality and consistency.

Creating National Ownership. In order for the country programs to have strong and appropriate ownership and continue to be viable, national stakeholders are being given an increasingly large role in the delivery and ultimately the governance of the Better Work programs. This is being established through the Project Advisory Committees, which are made up of representatives from government, employers and trade unions to advise programs as well as through active partnership with local representatives.

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