Q&A: U.S. Director of Global Labor Justice answers B&W questions

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Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum is the U.S. director of Global Labor Justice. Rosenbaum will be speaking on a panel during the 100th anniversary of the ILO conference this Thursday, April 11, 2019, at Lehigh University. (Courtesy of Maina Kiai/Creative Commons)

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, the U.S. director of Global Labor Justice, will serve as a speaker on the “Transformative Agenda for Equality at Work” panel at the ILO centenary conference held at Lehigh this Thursday. Global Labor Justice is a strategy hub focused on collaboration to fix labor issues in global supply chains and value chains. As part of a series of Q&As with speakers, moderators and panelists who will take part in the conference, entitled “An Equitable and Sustainable Future of Work,” The Brown and White sat down with Rosenbaum to discuss her expertise on equality in global supply chains in anticipation of the conference. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is the biggest learning you’ve taken from Global Labor Justice that you’ll be able to bring to the conference?

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum: At Global Labor Justice, we think the economy is increasingly global and is organized around global supply chains for production and global value chains. A lot of folks worry this means there won’t be an important way for working people to exercise power. We think that our work shows examples of how working people across borders can collaborate in the broader struggle for decent work.

Q: How does that pan out in terms of labor rights as they go across different countries and different cultures, especially in global supply chains?

JR: Most labor law is structured around national law — whether you look at wages, sexual harassment protections, health and safety protections, etc. And a lot of worker organizations are structured in that way. What we’re interested in and experimenting on with our partners is how to understand the structure of global supply chains and build advocacy strategies across them that raise labor standards for all workers.

Q: What would be an example of a strategy to do that?

JR: Part of our work that I’ll be talking about (at the conference) will be our work around combating and preventing gender-based violence. This is an area of work along global supply chains, particularly in the garment sector in Asia, where we have learned a lot about what constitutes gender-based violence.

We recently put out some current research on the kinds of gender-based violence that could be found on supply chains of major brands, including H&M and Walmart. We’re also proposing new kinds of training that have an important role for unions on the supply chains for brands to work together to eliminate the kind of conditions that lead to gender-based violence.

What our research shows is that eliminating gender-based violence will require changes at the supplier level on the garment production line, in the industrial relations and in the overall supply chain business model.

Q: With global migrant crises, some of these themes seem relevant to those who might find themselves displaced from their country. What is the relationship between them and global supply chains?

JR: The structure of global supply chains and global production networks enables U.S. brands to move the production of goods to place with the lowest labor and trade costs. And we do see that after that, because of the extreme race to the bottom conditions in many global supply chains, those production nodal points looking for workers already facing structural vulnerabilities.

That includes vulnerabilities by race or caste, by gender and by migrant status. In some global supply chain points you see internal migrants from rural to urban areas and sometimes across border migrants. That’s part of why our research has been looking at migration corridors and what models are for raising labor standards.

Q: Do there need to be different types of approaches to different types of inequalities? For example, gender equality vs. racial equality?

JR: Yes, although I’m not sure I have a good answer for that one. I do think that pressures of the competitive structure of global supply chains create the opening for exploitation based on multiple factors.

There are some structural changes that would span across the different kinds of worker exploitation, but there are also some differences in terms of approach. What’s the same, though, is that you’ll need strong worker organizations at the base level in order to change these practices.

And there will need to be a role for worker organizations and unions, suppliers, and buyers and brands that all will be necessary. An approach, for example that is limited to corporate social responsibility with buyers and brands policing themselves, will not be sufficient.

Q: Does the idea of intersectionality ever come into play in terms of different types of inequalities?

JR: That’s definitely a reality for workers. For example, it’s many women migrants that you find at particular parts of supply chains. An intersectional approach is absolutely necessary and it’s also an intersectional approach to organizing to solve the problem. We see the strongest work being done where trade unions, women’s organizations, migrant organizations and human rights organizations are coming together to think together and build allied strategies.

Q: Would you say that global supply chains and workforce require a radical change in labor policy at this time?

JR: That’s a somewhat contextual issue — in some countries the labor laws are better than others. Generally speaking, minimum wage laws are below the living wage level. Sometimes it’s a question of the nature of the laws as written and sometimes it’s a question of the laws as enforced.

The new dynamic that global supply chains bring is that the entities with the power to fix the problem are not located in the legal jurisdiction of the place where the violation is happening. So if there’s extreme union busting happening at a supplier for U.S. brands for outside Delhi, India, they can go through the labor courts with the supplier but there isn’t a legal connection to the brand. On the other hand, if the brands do engage they often have the power to stop exploitative labor practices. So in a way, it’s catching up the legal systems to the notion of the current global economy.

The ILO has an increasingly important role to play and that’s why the 100th anniversary is important the discussion will be important. We’re particularly excited about the international labor standards setting on gender-based violence. This is a really important issue for the ILO to take up and set standards across the world – whichever country that you’re in.

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