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ILO, IFC join to promote "better work" in global supply chains: An interview with Ros Harvey, ILO and IFC Better Work Global Programme Manager

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group and the ILO have joined to improve labour practices and competitiveness in global supply chains. An international buyers’ consultative forum, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), will support the efforts made by the newly created Better Work programme. ILO Online spoke with Ros Harvey, ILO and IFC Better Work Global Programme Manager.

Article | 17 September 2007

GENEVA (ILO Online) – What is the new Better Work programme all about?

Ros Harvey: The Better Work programme is about a fairer globalisation and reducing poverty in developing countries. It is designed to improve the working conditions in global supply chains whilst at the same time improving competitiveness and the business case. International buyers have a critical role in this process by supporting improvements in their own supply chains.

Better Work will be managing three pilot country projects in Jordan, Lesotho and Viet Nam that combine independent assessments of labour standards at the factory level with training and capacity building. These pilot projects alone will directly benefit nearly 800,000 workers.

ILO Online: What is the role of BSR in this programme?

Ros Harvey: BSR is a leading non-profit business association in the field of social responsibility and counts among its members more than 250 of the world’s largest companies across industries including consumer products, agriculture, transportation, information and communications technology, pharmaceutical, oil and gas, mining, and media companies. It has offices in San Francisco, Europe, China and Hong Kong.

BSR will work with international buyers to convene global strategic meetings, coordinate consultative processes, disseminate information and lessons learned and encourage active participation from buyers in the programme. The ILO, IFC and BSR alliance is also designed to reduce duplication of monitoring and redirect efforts to fixing problems in global supply chains. BSR will coordinate international buyers in industries such as apparel and textiles, agribusiness at both plantation and processing levels, and other light manufacturing.

ILO Online: How is the new programme based on experiences the ILO, IFC and BSR had with a similar programme in Cambodia?

Ros Harvey: BSR already works with international buyers and the ILO and IFC in Cambodia on the Better Factories Cambodia project which inspired the creation of Better Work. This Better Work approach has led to verified improvements in working conditions across the industry, the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs, and sustained increases in exports to the United States and the European Union. Since the end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA), jobs in Cambodia’s garment export market have increased by nearly 30 per cent despite concerns that the industry would be decimated. In the first year after the lifting of quotas, international buyers involved in the programme increased exports at twice that of the industry average.

ILO Online: What are the benefits and challenges of implementing labour principles in supply chains?

Ros Harvey: As global competition increases, countries need to find ways to keep and develop their markets. They have to adopt a holistic strategy improving working conditions and compliance with labour standards, increasing productivity and promoting dialogue. Cambodia's success in attracting international buyers and increased orders has provided an example of how compliance with labour standards is good for business. Improving labour standards in supply chains is good for business but it is also good for workers and their communities. It shares the benefits of trade to some of the poorest people in the world by making sure that they get paid properly, have decent working conditions and have their rights respected.

ILO Online: What support can the ILO and IFC provide for business and labour?

Ros Harvey: The ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work contains “the Four Freedoms of Labour”: workplaces free from child labour, forced labour, discrimination that promote freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Other ILO tools to assist in promoting decent workplaces include the ILO’s Tripartite Declaration on Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, which is to mark its 30th anniversary this year; the recent tripartite agreement at the International Labour Conference in June on what constitutes sustainable enterprises and how to promote them and a series of “action programmes” organized by sector where employers, unions and governments work together in industries such as tourism and textiles.

IFC has performance standards to guide its investments. Performance standard 2 sets out good practice for businesses on labour issues. It includes the ILO’s core labour standards as well as a range of other labour standards.

IFC, often in partnership with organisations such as the ILO, also develops tools, good practices notes, and other guidance for the private sector to go beyond compliance in their labour standards performance. Better Work is one such example of these tools.

ILO Online: There are many Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives worldwide. What is the comparative advantage of a programme like Better Work?

Ros Harvey: The broad range of stakeholders gives the new programme a high degree of credibility. Better Work’s tools and country-specific programs will enable us to work together with government, international buyers, employer and workers’ organisations on shared models that promote sustainable impact at the national level. Better Work combines independent assessment of labour standards with capacity building and training. It is not enough to ask what is the problem. We also have to work together to find solutions. The future rests with the collaboration of partners at the national level together with international buyers. Only through broad-based engagement can we find practical tools and solutions which are based on actual experience. We need to measure what we do, identify what works, and what doesn’t. Through this process we will build support for change.

ILO Online: What are the strengths that the IFC and ILO bring to their partnership for Better Work?

Ros Harvey: IFC and ILO bring their expertise to the table. Better Work builds on the respective strengths of the IFC and the ILO. The IFC is the private sector financing arm of the World Bank. It recently adopted performance standards on labour for its investment clients. The ILO is the specialised labour agency of the United Nations. Better Work combines expertise of the ILO in social dialogue, labour standards and their application, with those of the IFC in private sector development. As international organisations they bring strong credibility and experience to the programme.

ILO Online: There was a session on labour during the Global Compact Leaders’ Summit 2007. In what way was the relationship between business and labour principles discussed?

Ros Harvey: Participants heard directly from both the CEOs and representatives of labour, employers and civil society as they discussed the relationship between business and labour principles. Moderating a panel that included representatives from the private sector, international and major trade union and employer organizations, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia emphasized the role of labour principles in business. According to Mr. Somavia, respect for fundamental rights at work, sound industrial relations and collective bargaining are all part of being a successful and sustainable enterprise.