Audrey Lang, October 2015 Fellow, talks to Rosey Hurst, the CEO and Founder of Impactt, about global supply chains and labour conditions.
Businesses are increasingly under pressure to improve transparency in their supply chains. Bad labour practices have led to disasters such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, which shone a light on the working conditions the people who make the clothes we wear every day may be in, and the lack of visibility and responsibility the client companies may have towards their suppliers.
Rosey Hurst is what we could consider a pioneer in fair labour advocacy. In 1997 she founded Impactt, an ethical trade consultancy focusing on labour rights, which she still runs today. The company has offices in the UK, India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Turkey. She was also a founding member of Sedex, a non-for-profit membership organisation dedicated to driving improvements in responsible and ethical business practices in global supply chains.
Her entrepreneurial journey follows the birth, growth, opportunities and challenges of the ethical trade movement. An inspiring leader, she is a smart and independent entrepreneur. She demonstrates how striking that balance between focus on the mission and constant challenge of the methods can move forward the fight for quality jobs for all.
Below Rosey describes her journey with setting up Impactt and her take on global supply chains and labour conditions:
I lived in India in the mid-90s and I got to see how very close poor people are to us through supply chains. The irony is that these people are so close, yet it seems that all the efforts of all the governments and ideologies in the world haven’t actually succeeded in significantly moving these people forward. So I kept wondering what tools were available to reach people, and I kept thinking of the supply chain.
At the time, trade was really starting there, the Indian economy was just opening up, foreign buyers were coming to purchase much more from India. However, the attitude towards these economic changes moved very quickly from ‘any market is good’ to ‘hang on a minute this is exploitative’. So I decided to study Development Studies at SOAS. At the time the Development curriculum was focusing much more on aid and FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), but not so much on supply chain. So I did my dissertation on supply chain… but I never finished it (sorry SOAS!), and started Impactt.
Fair labour, supply chain – Journey and challenges
This was in 1997, before the panoply of ethical trade even existed. The Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) was just coming together. It has been a huge journey for all the actors in the sector. We’ve been trying to find out how to use those extremely powerful forces in supply chains to try and make things… more civilised I suppose, so that the things we touch and use are done in such a way those people who make it would recognise as being good.
If we fast-forward, we’ve developed a large variety of tools, including ethical conduct, audits, etc… All of which are great, but we still face the issues of millions of people in the world whose jobs are not as good as they should be and of course the case of modern slavery (the 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates 45.8 million people are in some form of modern slavery in the world).
So the challenges remain. What I see as my part is to work as much as possible on the ground with fantastic local teams to try and work out how to improve job quality in a way that maintains those jobs through the supply chain.
On job quality
What we mean by job quality is actually not fully defined. No one ever says ‘Do you know what I want? I want a job that is fully compliant with international norms’. Yet the whole industry has focused solely on compliance to these norms.
Of course this provides a basic framework, but somehow there is a category error. Therefore for years we’ve been focusing on what exactly people want. We’ve been asking over 17,000 people all over the world that question, and it boils down to 3 items:
- Money – Not limited to the paycheck, but including also social security etc
- Respect – In the workplace do I feel proud about what I do, and really importantly when I go home am I respected for what I do by my wife, for example? When I go to the bank, can I apply for a loan because I work in a good factory? (if you work on a bad factory banks don’t give you loan as easily because they know you wouldn’t be paid on time)
- Sense of progression – where am I going?
If you think about most jobs in the international supply chain they’re quite bad on all these 3 aspects.
Placing this in the context of migrations, what migrants often do is trade respect (in the host country) for money, in the hope that it will help them with their progression. They also expect respect to be higher at home when they come back. All of this thinking of course takes place despite the noise around labour providers trafficking fees. A good migration is one where that bet comes off: you may suffer at some point, but in the end you achieve your objectives.
What’s interesting in the field of ethical supply chain and fair labour is that it is growing rapidly. However we should be mindful not to lock it down to a profession with lots of core skills and competences because we don’t have the answers yet, so we need to draw in from many different intellectual disciplines to see whether it might work like social psychology, business etc.
A lot of our work is also about linking productivity, product quality and efficiency because you HAVE TO make the case that ‘better workers are better for business’. A lot of our work consists in looking at the correlation between job quality and labour turnover: If the job is good, people will stay, and if they leave there is a cost. However in a lot of these contexts, labour is treated as a commodity. The general feeling is that workers accept these jobs and then move easily, and we need to challenge this perception.
Finally, I would say you have to know your stakeholders and genuinely understand their point of view. Although the world is a very bad place, there are very few very bad people. Most people are going along their train track and doing their best. So taking an accusatory stance is really unhelpful because if these people change ever so slightly, it can have a huge impact.
What do you hope for the future?
I would like the notion of job quality to replace the notion of compliance to labour standards.
And also workers themselves reporting on the job quality they are experiencing for themselves.
I hope we will be continuing to make people think and I hope we have the trust of a lot of different people and continue demonstrate new ways that people can adopt. How can we help all these people to reach their full potential?