Essential workers in supply chains ‘keep society afloat’

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of protecting the rights of essential workers throughout the supply chain, according to the sustainability boss at the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF).

Didier Bergeret, director social sustainability at the CGF, who also heads up the industry body’s Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative (SSCI), told SM many firms were having to redefine what an “essential worker” is following supply chain disruptions.

“The reality is that Covid has shown that the most vulnerable people were effectively helping society to stay afloat, and that has generated new questions on what is an essential job,” he said.  

“When you have the luxury of working remotely, you still rely on workers in shops, manufacturing and delivering your goods. The pandemic has made the invisible populations that help society to survive more visible.”

As the pandemic has unfolded, multiple instances of exploitation in supply chains have come to light. Retailers were criticised for cancelling orders worth millions of pounds with garment suppliers in Bangladesh, putting workers' livelihoods at risk.

Most recently, online retailer Boohoo was urged to take action on claims workers at supplier factories in Leicester were being paid well below minimum wage and did not have access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

Some of these issues would have appeared regardless of Covid, Bergeret added, but the pandemic highlighted the need for firms to be engaged with social sustainability at all times. 

“Being engaged in social sustainability makes sure labour issues are the focus and not just a reaction to Covid. You should have a different mindset and a different approach to these essential workers throughout the value chains that help your industry to strive and respond to needs during times of crisis.”

Thomas Van Haaren, senior manager at SSCI, told SM a lot of firms used third-party audits and programmes to check on working conditions, including ensuring workers have PPE, the minimum wage is being met and facilities are free from slavery, but work must be carried out to make these programmes more credible.

“You can’t just bury your head in the sand. Everybody knew these issues were going on in places like Leicester, so if you're getting somebody else in to check, you have to make sure that that person is credible in giving that information.”

Critics have argued that auditing suppliers is not effective enough to prevent exploitation in supply chains.

“Social and sustainability audits are just a tool in the toolkit. Some people rely on them as the be-all and end-all assessment of supplier sustainability. There are certainly criticisms and there are shortfalls because they're a snapshot in time but they are the tool that the industry has,” said Van Haaren.

Complementary tools such as worker voice surveys and programmes can work alongside audits to flag any potential issues, while in high-risk countries, governments need to step up in terms of enforcement of existing labour laws, he added. 

“Social audits remain the most scalable tool to make sure that somebody has reviewed these issues. They're not going to solve 100% of the problems and a lot more work can be done. Firms get the information from the social audit, but then it's up to the company or the industry to do something with that information and that's where a lot of the work needs to be done.”

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