Taking Worker Rights to Scale—So What If There Isn’t a Business Case?

February 1, 2011
  • Ayesha Barenblat

    Former Director, Stakeholder Collaboration, BSR

I just returned from Singapore, where (thanks to the generous support of the Levi Strauss Foundation) we convened a leading group of worker rights training organizations from around the world to collaborate on ways to scale and deepen the impact of their daunting and difficult in-factory work.

We had a few “a-ha” moments along the way that are worth sharing:

  1. Collaboration is necessary: Worker rights training organizations are severely underfunded and there is an appetite to share training content, design, and delivery innovations as well as learn from each other’s challenges. This collaboration—where trainers who compete for training dollars from multinational brands set aside their differences to learn from one another—is a first of its kind.
  2. Context is key, but endemic issues are the same: Despite the differences in cultural contexts and labor laws, training organizations from countries as diverse as Bangladesh, China, India, and Vietnam are dealing with similar challenges on core labor issues such as wages, working hours, harassment, and discrimination.
  3. Use of multi-media is on the rise: Every trainer in the room acknowledged the limited impact slides and lecture-style formats have, particularly given workers’ low literacy levels and the difficulty of setting up in-factory training sessions. New training techniques include the use of SMS, animation, videos, comic books, and participatory approaches to disseminating information.
  4. Measurement remains elusive: Across the board, attendees acknowledged that capturing the business and social impacts of in-factory worker rights trainings is difficult. Today’s metrics center around training outputs (e.g. number of worker trainings and topics covered) as opposed to measuring training outcomes (e.g. changes to workers' lives and in management’s attitude).

Our discussion on impact measurements left me with an important question for our members: Would you stop your worker rights training efforts if there was no business case?

We currently put a lot of emphasis on establishing the “business case” for in-factory interventions, which has resulted in additional pressure on under-resourced training organizations that are already struggling to rally reticent factory management and tired workers. Worker rights are non-negotiable—most are a part of any country’s labor laws and likely a part of factories’ personnel policies. In some cases, a better understanding of contracts and wages may not have direct bottom-line benefits to factories.

Sure, we’ve all seen some correlations among worker trainings and improved turnover, absenteeism, and productivity, but it’s typically hard to establish causation. What if instead of chasing the elusive business case, brands were just firmer about tying their business relationships and orders to upholding worker rights?

Up next, BSR will be working with Levi Strauss Foundation to create a compendium of training content, tips, and tools based on the collective input of participating training organizations. Our hope is to test this more robust and holistic training curriculum in factories. If you are interested in collaborating, contact Ayesha Barenblat at connect@bsr.org.

For more information on this initiative, read our report “Moving the Needle.”

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