Be a change maker: reflecting on change in supply chains over the last 5 years

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In this valedictory blog, Sabita Banerji – who recently left ETI – reflects on her work with our Knowledge and Learning Team. And on the changes she’s seen in company attitudes to living wages, gender equality, responsible purchasing practices and more.

When I first started working for ETI at the ripe old age of 51, I realised I had finally found what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I had seen much poverty and inequality as a child in India and felt powerless to help. At the age of 10, Indian fighter planes flew over our house in Assam on their way to support Bangladesh’s independence war. And visiting my ancestral West Bengali village, I saw thousands of Bangladeshi refugees being fed from giant cooking pots provided by my grandparents’ Oxfam-supported Social Welfare Society. 

I have since watched Bangladesh’s garment sector grow to a huge industry that has pulled millions of people – mostly women – out of the most abject rural poverty. And I know it has so much more potential to let those millions truly thrive.

The best way to end poverty

After various early careers I eventually, perhaps inevitably, moved into international development. But after 15 years, I started to wonder whether “charity” was really the best answer to poverty.  

Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid reinforced these doubts, although she was focusing on country-to-country aid. Of course, Oxfam and most other reputable NGOs do not just dish out charity but address human rights, build capacity and institutions and empower people to overcome poverty themselves.

Nevertheless, having visited the homes of many, many people living in poverty around the world and listened to their stories, I knew that what people really wanted – if at all possible – was not hand-outs, or even hand-ups.

Like the Bangladeshi garment workers, they wanted to earn their own way in the world (this impression is backed up by a global Gallup poll). They wanted what is still too often the luxury of dignity.

And as the Asian tiger phenomenon of the ‘90’s and the rise of the BRIC countries unfolded, I started to feel more and more convinced that ultimately it was trade that would have the biggest and most lasting impact on poverty.

But not just any kind of trade – trade that respected people’s rights and shared value fairly.

So, I reinvented myself. I learned about Fairtrade, joined the city of Oxford’s Fairtrade Coalition and volunteered for Just Change – an innovative Indian community tea trading organisation. And then I got my job as Knowledge and Learning Officer (now Senior Knowledge and Learning Advisor) at ETI.

The complexity of supply chains

I learned a huge amount in my five years at ETI.

I learned about the complexity of global supply chains and that even calling them “chains” oversimplifies the reality. They are huge, amorphous global ecosystems – constantly shapeshifting with the fashions and the seasons. Large sections of them are only partially visible and they can be and too often are suffused with deeply ingrained inequalities.

I learned that despite this complexity, (and contrary to the beliefs of many outside the commercial world) there are individuals within businesses, and businesses themselves, that genuinely want to end the exploitation of the weakest members of society. 

I learned that trade unions and companies can overcome their historical mutual mistrust to work together to defend workers’ rights.

And I learned that NGOs can provide valuable support to companies striving to make workers’ lives better.

Meeting workers in India, Bangladesh, South Africa and Morocco

I celebrated my third ETI anniversary observing a training session for labour providers in Tamil Nadu and saw them discover for the first time that India has a national minimum wage.

I watched the bright, engaged faces at a young women’s worker peer group session in the Tamil Nadu mills growing in self-confidence as they learned about health and communication skills.

I met newly trained members of Bangladeshi garment factory participation committees – with equal numbers of men and women – excited about their new-found knowledge of rights and feeling empowered to defend them.

I interviewed women fruit packers in the Western Cape, one of them describing how strengthening worker representation at her workplace had helped put her on a permanent contract. And how that meant she could now better nourish and care for her children.

I also heard another group of women telling me that sexual harassment was not an issue and then watched their expressions change as a truckload of male colleagues’ wolf whistled and shouted at them.

And in January this year, I saw women workers on Moroccan strawberry farms telling stories about their working conditions to a group of young female graduates. The graduates entered the stories and supporting data into tablets, which produced immediate patterns for us to analyse further.

Living wages and more

Over those five years, I saw companies move from seeing living wages as “merely aspirational” to beginning to address the issue head-on; from becoming accredited Living Wage employers themselves to joining forces with other companies, governments and trade unions to tackle low wages in supply chains at an industrial level.

I am convinced that ETI’s Living Wage reports, guidance, blogs, workshops and conferences contributed to the process.

During my time at ETI, we launched a new gender strategy and I saw awareness of the need for the empowerment of women workers grow amongst colleagues and members.

The NGO world – and the Sustainable Development Goal community – have long been aware that because poverty is rooted in inequality, addressing the gender power imbalance is a vital prerequisite to addressing all the other goals – or, in ETI’s case, manifestations of worker exploitation covered in the ETI Base Code of labour standards.

I saw companies increasingly bringing their ethical and buying teams together to harmonise the messages they’re sending to suppliers. Without this, the push for low prices, high quality and quick turnaround, makes it almost impossible for the supplier to comply with codes of conduct on worker pay, hours and safety.

I’m sure the upcoming Joint ETI Guide to Buying Responsibly – based on an extensive supplier survey we carried out in partnership with the ILO – will help support and enhance this process.

I saw companies’ attitude to homeworkers move from a shameful secret that must be avoided at all costs, to their acceptance as part of the supply chain that will benefit workers more by being visible – rather than by being hidden.

I saw the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and, in the UK, the Modern Slavery Act, drive a huge corporate lurch forwards in ethical trade and human rights due diligence.

But I also heard from workers, including those women Moroccan berry workers, that far too much suffering is still being experienced. And that there is still too little formal worker representation.

Wishing ETI company members well

So, as I return part-time to my Oxfam roots – this time in the Private Sector team – and begin life as an independent consultant, I heartily wish ETI members well in their efforts to ensure that the rights of the workers, who are the source of all their supply ecosystems, are realised.

I applaud your efforts to ensure that all workers can have what everyone in the world wants – a decent job.

A job that allows them to feed themselves and their families, educate their children, not be pushed into debt when illness strikes or when a marriage or funeral comes along.

A job that gives them a secure income and free time to spend with their families. A job where they are safe and healthy. A job that they can leave if they want to.

Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s their right.

And because, as “proud and unapologetic capitalist” Nick Hanauer recognised, if workers in supply chains are denied their rights, eventually, like the women tea workers of Munnar, they will rise up and demand them.

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ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.