Corporate Accountability and Worker Rights

ARC’s Corporate Accountability and Worker Rights program engages national trade union organizers and worker rights advocates. It aims to learn about and share strategies to advance worker power and access to remedy for rights violations in global supply chains.

Organizers meeting with Cambodian fishers in Chon Buri, Thailand. Credit: Judy Gearhart

About the Work

ARC collaborates with national worker rights advocates to document their strategies for holding governments and corporations accountable. Through participatory action research, ARC learns from and connects these national advocates to international policy dialogues and helps share their experiences.

Two central questions guide this program. First, how do workers and affected communities hold multinational corporations (MNCs) accountable – directly and through government regulations? Second, what policies and programs facilitate their ability to exercise their rights and secure remedy?

ARC’s Corporate Accountability and Worker Rights program connects bottom-up and top-down change strategies – lifting up worker-driven solutions to better inform international trade, development, and business and human rights policies.

Research professor Judy Gearhart leads the program for ARC, leveraging over 25 years of experience building multi-stakeholder coalitions to help workers and affected communities secure legal and corporate reforms.

Transnational organizing in global supply chains: An apparel worker in Cambodia protests for a minimum living wage

This garment worker, pictured at a rally in front of the Ministry of Labor in Phnom Penh on 28 December 2013, is one of thousands who marched to demand a monthly living wage of $160. Five days later, as protests continued, military police opened fire and four protesters were killed and dozens injured. Photo: Cambodian League for the Protection and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)

Program areas

1.  Worker-driven solutions for advancing accountability

Worker voice, as protected by the right to organize trade unions and to bargain collectively, is essential to advancing corporate accountability. These core, enabling rights are necessary for any sustainable prevention of egregious abuses such as forced labor, child labor, and gender-based violence. They are also critical building blocks for advancing equity and enabling workers to seek remedy for rights violations.

‘Remedy’ is the third pillar of the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on Business and Human Rights (after ‘Protect’ and ‘Respect’) – and the most challenging to fulfil for companies and governments alike. It requires that workers have the agency to seek out and demand remedy. Yet governments intent on maintaining ‘business-friendly’ export sectors often limit labor rights protections and restrict worker agency as a result.

ARC research draws on lessons across industries. It learns from apparel worker organizers’ transnational strategies to negotiate binding agreements with MNCs. It documents the challenges of enabling worker-driven solutions in challenging, remote settings including cocoa farms, isolated fishing communities, and at sea.

The research in this working paper examines how national worker organizers and rights advocates leverage transnational advocacy to gain influence and drive reforms. Case studies feature the experiences of global South organizers in the apparel, cocoa, and seafood industries.

In 2023 ARC is building on this research to explore how migrant fishers are organizing in transnational supply chains, and how small-scale fishers are seeking better access to social services and rights protections.

2. Global policies to enable workers’ access to remedy

ARC draws lessons from transnational organizing in industries such as apparel, cocoa, and seafood. In these and other industries, transnational supply chain advocacy networks (TSCANs) have emerged to connect national organizers’ demands to international campaigns for industry reforms. CSO coalitions like the TSCANs create locally grounded networks with broad industry knowledge and the ability to facilitate South-South learning. These ‘knowledge networks’ are essential to informing trade and development policies and to improving human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD) and the regulation of MNCs’ global impact.

ARC research monitors closely how laws mandating HREDD and laws that incentivize HREDD, such as forced labor import bans, are advancing pathways for workers to demand remedy. Working with national organizers, ARC assesses the potential impact of corporate policies to mitigate rights abuses and how governments can strengthen information flows among diverse stakeholders to improve workers’ access to remedy.

Each year, Judy Gearhart works with a team of graduate students to assess the implementation of HREDD laws and its impact on corporate practice in the seafood industry. Each report draws on legal research and practitioner interviews to summarize current policy debates and challenges in ensuring HREDD enables workers’ access to remedy.

In 2023, ARC began researching government-led stakeholder engagement programs, to identify effective approaches to information sharing and enforcement.

Featured resources

Webinar on Transnational Advocacy in Global Supply Chains

In September 2023 ARC convened a webinar to share findings and discuss the policy levers and organizing strategies utilized in transnational advocacy for workers’ rights. Watch:

 

  • Judy Gearhart’s presentation of “Building Worker Power in Global Supply Chains: Lessons from Apparel, Cocoa, and Seafood” (starts 3.49).

 

  • Reflections from Lance Compa, Senior Lecturer Emeritus, Cornell University, School of International Labor Relations (starts 31.25).

 

  • Reflections from Shareen Hertel, Wiktor Osiatyński Chair of Human Rights & Professor of Political Science, University of Connecticut (starts 40.38).

Interviews with Organizers: The Labor Link Podcast

labor link podcast

The Labor Link Podcast features the experience and analysis of national worker organizers and advocates.

Hosted by Judy Gearhart, the Labor Link Podcast is affiliated with the Labor Radio Network and produced by Jules Taylor. Earlier episodes were produced by Evan Matthew Papp of Empathy Media Lab. Listen to:

  • Sawit Kaewaan on mobilizing national trade unions to support migrant workers in Thailand.
  • Ang Kyaw on bringing his activist drive from Myanmar to organizing migrant workers in Thailand.
  • Tola Moeun on social movements and transnational organizing for apparel workers’ rights.
  • Kalpona Akter on bringing bottom-up organizing to shape global campaigns for apparel workers.

New epsiodes coming Spring 2024!

Head shot of Kalpona Akter, worker rights advocate

“I believe once you start work for worker rights, you cannot stop. You just can’t stop yourself. I need to protest. I need to have these workers’ back.” Kalpona Akter

Counterparts, Allies and Collaborators

Action research collaborators include:

The work is funded by The David & Lucille Packard Foundation, Multiplier, and 21st Century ILGWU Heritage Foundation.

Related Resources

2023

Building Worker Power in Global Supply Chains: Lessons from Apparel, Cocoa, and Seafood, Accountability Working Paper (Judy Gearhart, September 2023)

Ten years after Rana Plaza: Remembering, learning, moving forward, short video (BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, 2023)

Ten Years After Rana Plaza, research brief (Maheen Sultan, Iffat Jahan Antara, and Touhidul Islam, 2023). Bengali version.

A Deeper Dive: Remedy and Recruitment in the Seafood Industry, report of a field practicum on behalf of the Fisheries Governance Project (Judy Gearhart (ed.), Kelcey Allen Rodriguez, Sloane Hardin, Suhyeon Kim, Victoria Latham, Olivia Marr, Samuel McGovern, Carla Montilla, Connor Moynihan, Heather Mullen, Kiley Nivens, Matthew Ridgeway, 2023)

Accountability in the seafood industry: protecting fisheries and fishery workers, research presentation and discussion (Judy Gearhart, Victoria Latham, Connor Moynihan, Sloane Hardin, Ian Urbina, and Anne Zollner, May 2023)

Supporting migrant fishers’ rights, panel presentation (Kevin Cassidy, Anne Zollner, Tola Moeun, Jennifer Rosenbaum, and Judy Gearhart, March 2023)

Defending Democracy: A New Approach for Apparel Industry Supply Chains, Sourcing Journal article (Judy Gearhart, March 2023)

Why This Labor Expert Urges Brands to Stop ‘Shooting Yourself in the Foot’, Sourcing Journal article (Jasmine Chua Malik, March 2023)

Local Voices, Global Action: Transnational Organizing in Apparel Supply Chains, Accountability Working Paper (Judy Gearhart, March 2023)

Coping with modern slavery in the fisheries sector, Destructive Fisheries Indonesia (DFI) podcast (Judy Gearhart discussing fishery workers’ rights, January 2023)

2022

How can data used to trace seafood also fight human rights and labor abuses in this industry? Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability (SALT) podcast (Judy Gearhart and Rainer Braun, September 2022)

Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence in the Seafood Industry, report of a field practicum on behalf of the Fisheries Governance Project (Judy Gearhart (ed.),  Christopher Clayton, Jason Cowan, Michaela Dreeszen, Madeline Elminowski, Kyra Jones, Alex Mathews, Rishi Parikh, Luisa Pavarino Spezia, Leah Rullman, and Nina Song, 2022)

2021

(Dis)Incentivizing Democracy; the Role of Global Corporations in Cambodia opinion piece, Business & Human Rights Resource Center (Judy Gearhart, 2021)

How Can the World Bank Reduce Child Labor and Farmer Poverty with its Proposed Côte d’Ivoire Cocoa Project? blog, Bank Information Center (Sofia Dinn with Judy Gearhart, 2021)

The Corporate Accountability Paradox Accountability Keywords blog (Judy Gearhart, 2021)

Is the Thai government punishing anti-human trafficking advocates? news article, Thomson Reuters Foundation (Judy Gearhart, 2021)

The Corporate Accountability Paradox opinion piece, Business & Human Rights Resource Center (Judy Gearhart, 2021)

2020

Picturing Accountability: What We Learned from the Photography of the Rana Plaza Disaster ARC Working Paper (Ismail Ferdous and Naomi Hossain, 2020)

Rethinking MSIs: MSIs and the Search to Cure the Global Governance Gap  MSIntegrity blog (Judy Gearhart 2020)

Health Worker Protests & Proposals ARC research page