17:47
TEDGlobal 2010

Auret van Heerden: Making global labor fair

Filmed:

FLA head Auret van Heerden talks about the next frontier of workers' rights -- globalized industries where no single national body can keep workers safe and protected. How can we keep our global supply chains honest? Van Heerden makes the business case for fair labor.

- Labor-rights activist
At the head of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), Auret van Heerden takes a practical approach to workers' rights, persuading corporations and NGOs to protect labor in global supply chains. Full bio

This cell phone
00:15
started its trajectory
00:18
in an artisanal mine
00:21
in the Eastern Congo.
00:23
It's mined by armed gangs
00:25
using slaves, child slaves,
00:27
what the U.N. Security Council
00:29
calls "blood minerals,"
00:31
then traveled into some components
00:33
and ended up in a factory
00:35
in Shinjin in China.
00:37
That factory -- over a dozen people have committed suicide
00:39
already this year.
00:42
One man died after working a 36-hour shift.
00:44
We all love chocolate.
00:48
We buy it for our kids.
00:50
Eighty percent of the cocoa comes from Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana
00:52
and it's harvested by children.
00:55
Cote d'Ivoire, we have a huge problem of child slaves.
00:58
Children have been trafficked from other conflict zones
01:00
to come and work on the coffee plantations.
01:03
Heparin -- a blood thinner,
01:06
a pharmaceutical product --
01:08
starts out in artisanal workshops
01:10
like this in China,
01:13
because the active ingredient
01:15
comes from pigs' intestines.
01:17
Your diamond -- you've all heard, probably seen the movie "Blood Diamond."
01:20
This is a mine in Zimbabwe
01:23
right now.
01:25
Cotton: Uzbekistan is the second biggest
01:27
exporter of cotton on Earth.
01:29
Every year when it comes to the cotton harvest,
01:31
the government shuts down the schools,
01:34
puts the kids in buses, buses them to the cotton fields
01:36
to spend three weeks harvesting the cotton.
01:39
It's forced child labor
01:42
on an institutional scale.
01:44
And all of those products probably end their lives
01:47
in a dump like this one in Manila.
01:50
These places, these origins,
01:52
represent governance gaps.
01:55
That's the politest description
01:57
I have for them.
01:59
These are the dark pools
02:02
where global supply chains begin --
02:04
the global supply chains,
02:07
which bring us our favorite brand name products.
02:09
Some of these governance gaps
02:12
are run by rogue states.
02:15
Some of them are not states anymore at all.
02:18
They're failed states.
02:20
Some of them
02:22
are just countries who believe that deregulation or no regulation
02:24
is the best way to attract investment,
02:27
promote trade.
02:30
Either way, they present us
02:32
with a huge moral and ethical dilemma.
02:34
I know that none of us want to be accessories
02:38
after the fact
02:40
of a human rights abuse
02:43
in a global supply chain.
02:45
But right now,
02:47
most of the companies involved in these supply chains
02:49
don't have any way
02:52
of assuring us
02:54
that nobody had to mortgage their future,
02:56
nobody had to sacrifice their rights
02:58
to bring us our favorite
03:01
brand name product.
03:03
Now, I didn't come here to depress you
03:06
about the state of the global supply chain.
03:08
We need a reality check.
03:11
We need to recognize just how serious
03:13
a deficit of rights we have.
03:16
This is an independent republic,
03:19
probably a failed state.
03:21
It's definitely not a democratic state.
03:23
And right now,
03:27
that independent republic of the supply chain
03:29
is not being governed
03:31
in a way that would satisfy us,
03:33
that we can engage in ethical trade or ethical consumption.
03:36
Now, that's not a new story.
03:40
You've seen the documentaries
03:42
of sweatshops making garments
03:44
all over the world, even in developed countries.
03:46
You want to see the classic sweatshop,
03:49
meet me at Madison Square Garden,
03:51
I'll take you down the street, and I'll show you a Chinese sweatshop.
03:53
But take the example of heparin.
03:56
It's a pharmaceutical product.
03:59
You expect that the supply chain that gets it to the hospital,
04:01
probably squeaky clean.
04:04
The problem is that the active ingredient in there --
04:08
as I mentioned earlier --
04:10
comes from pigs.
04:12
The main American manufacturer
04:14
of that active ingredient
04:17
decided a few years ago to relocate to China
04:19
because it's the world's biggest supplier of pigs.
04:22
And their factory in China --
04:25
which probably is pretty clean --
04:27
is getting all of the ingredients
04:30
from backyard abattoirs,
04:32
where families slaughter pigs
04:34
and extract the ingredient.
04:36
So a couple of years ago, we had a scandal
04:39
which killed about 80 people around the world,
04:41
because of contaminants
04:43
that crept into the heparin supply chain.
04:45
Worse, some of the suppliers
04:48
realized that they could substitute a product
04:50
which mimicked heparin in tests.
04:54
This substitute cost nine dollars a pound,
04:58
whereas real heparin, the real ingredient,
05:01
cost 900 dollars a pound.
05:04
A no-brainer.
05:07
The problem was that it killed more people.
05:09
And so you're asking yourself,
05:12
"How come the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
05:14
allowed this to happen?
05:16
How did the Chinese State Agency for Food and Drugs
05:18
allow this to happen?"
05:20
And the answer is quite simple:
05:22
the Chinese define these facilities
05:25
as chemical facilities, not pharmaceutical facilities,
05:27
so they don't audit them.
05:30
And the USFDA
05:32
has a jurisdictional problem.
05:34
This is offshore.
05:36
They actually do conduct a few investigations overseas --
05:38
about a dozen a year -- maybe 20 in a good year.
05:40
There are 500
05:43
of these facilities
05:45
producing active ingredients in China alone.
05:47
In fact, about 80 percent
05:50
of the active ingredients in medicines now
05:53
come from offshore,
05:55
particularly China and India,
05:57
and we don't have a governance system.
05:59
We don't have a regulatory system
06:02
able to ensure
06:04
that that production is safe.
06:06
We don't have a system to ensure
06:10
that human rights, basic dignity,
06:12
are ensured.
06:14
So at a national level --
06:17
and we work in about 60 different countries --
06:20
at a national level
06:22
we've got a serious breakdown in the ability of governments
06:24
to regulate production
06:26
on their own soil.
06:29
And the real problem with the global supply chain
06:32
is that it's supranational.
06:34
So governments who are failing,
06:36
who are dropping the ball
06:38
at a national level,
06:40
have even less ability to get their arms around the problem
06:42
at an international level.
06:44
And you can just look at the headlines.
06:47
Take Copenhagen last year --
06:49
complete failure of governments
06:52
to do the right thing
06:54
in the face of an international challenge.
06:56
Take the G20 meeting a couple of weeks ago --
06:59
stepped back from its commitments of just a few months ago.
07:02
You can take any one
07:07
of the major global challenges we've discussed this week
07:09
and ask yourself, where is the leadership from governments
07:12
to step up and come up with solutions,
07:15
responses,
07:18
to those international problems?
07:20
And the simple answer is they can't. They're national.
07:23
Their voters are local.
07:27
They have parochial interests.
07:29
They can't subordinate those interests
07:31
to the greater global public good.
07:33
So, if we're going to ensure the delivery
07:36
of the key public goods
07:38
at an international level --
07:40
in this case, in the global supply chain --
07:42
we have to come up with a different mechanism.
07:45
We need a different machine.
07:48
Fortunately, we have some examples.
07:52
In the 1990s,
07:56
there were a whole series of scandals
07:58
concerning the production of brand name goods in the U.S. --
08:00
child labor, forced labor,
08:02
serious health and safety abuses.
08:04
And eventually President Clinton, in 1996,
08:07
convened a meeting at the White House,
08:09
invited industry, human rights NGOs,
08:12
trade unions, the Department of Labor,
08:15
got them all in a room
08:17
and said, "Look,
08:19
I don't want globalization to be a race to the bottom.
08:21
I don't know how to prevent that,
08:23
but I'm at least going to use my good offices
08:25
to get you folks together
08:27
to come up with a response."
08:29
So they formed a White House task force,
08:32
and they spent about three years arguing
08:34
about who takes how much responsibility
08:37
in the global supply chain.
08:40
Companies didn't feel it was their responsibility.
08:43
They don't own those facilities.
08:46
They don't employ those workers.
08:48
They're not legally liable.
08:50
Everybody else at the table
08:53
said, "Folks, that doesn't cut it.
08:55
You have a custodial duty, a duty of care,
08:57
to make sure that that product
09:00
gets from wherever to the store
09:02
in a way that allows us to consume it,
09:05
without fear of our safety,
09:08
or without having to sacrifice our conscience
09:11
to consume that product."
09:15
So they agreed, "Okay, what we'll do
09:17
is we agree on a common set of standards,
09:20
code of conduct.
09:22
We'll apply that throughout
09:24
our global supply chain
09:26
regardless of ownership or control.
09:28
We'll make it part of the contract."
09:30
And that was a stroke of absolute genius,
09:33
because what they did
09:36
was they harnessed the power of the contract,
09:38
private power,
09:41
to deliver public goods.
09:43
And let's face it,
09:45
the contract from a major multinational brand
09:47
to a supplier in India or China
09:49
has much more persuasive value
09:52
than the local labor law,
09:54
the local environmental regulations,
09:56
the local human rights standards.
09:58
Those factories will probably never see an inspector.
10:01
If the inspector did come along,
10:04
it would be amazing if they were able
10:07
to resist the bribe.
10:09
Even if they did their jobs,
10:13
and they cited those facilities for their violations,
10:15
the fine would be derisory.
10:19
But you lose that contract
10:21
for a major brand name,
10:23
that's the difference
10:25
between staying in business or going bankrupt.
10:27
That makes a difference.
10:30
So what we've been able to do
10:32
is we've been able to harness
10:34
the power and the influence
10:36
of the only truly transnational institution
10:38
in the global supply chain,
10:41
that of the multinational company,
10:43
and get them to do the right thing,
10:46
get them to use that power for good,
10:48
to deliver the key public goods.
10:51
Now of course, this doesn't come naturally
10:55
to multinational companies.
10:57
They weren't set up to do this. They're set up to make money.
10:59
But they are extremely efficient organizations.
11:02
They have resources,
11:05
and if we can add the will, the commitment,
11:07
they know how to deliver that product.
11:10
Now, getting there is not easy.
11:15
Those supply chains I put up on the screen earlier,
11:18
they're not there.
11:21
You need a safe space.
11:23
You need a place where people can come together,
11:25
sit down without fear of judgment,
11:28
without recrimination,
11:30
to actually face the problem,
11:32
agree on the problem and come up with solutions.
11:34
We can do it. The technical solutions are there.
11:37
The problem is the lack of trust, the lack of confidence,
11:40
the lack of partnership
11:43
between NGOs, campaign groups,
11:45
civil society organizations
11:47
and multinational companies.
11:50
If we can put those two together in a safe space,
11:53
get them to work together,
11:56
we can deliver public goods right now,
11:58
or in extremely short supply.
12:01
This is a radical proposition,
12:04
and it's crazy to think
12:06
that if you're a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl
12:08
leaving your rural village
12:11
to go and work in a factory in Dhaka --
12:14
22, 23, 24 dollars a month --
12:17
your best chance of enjoying rights at work
12:22
is if that factory is producing
12:25
for a brand name company
12:27
which has got a code of conduct
12:29
and made that code of conduct part of the contract.
12:31
It's crazy.
12:35
Multinationals are protecting human rights.
12:37
I know there's going to be disbelief.
12:39
You'll say, "How can we trust them?"
12:41
Well, we don't.
12:43
It's the old arms control phrase:
12:45
"Trust, but verify."
12:47
So we audit.
12:49
We take their supply chain, we take all the factory names,
12:51
we do a random sample,
12:54
we send inspectors on an unannounced basis
12:56
to inspect those facilities,
12:59
and then we publish the results.
13:01
Transparency is absolutely critical to this.
13:03
You can call yourself responsible,
13:07
but responsibility without accountability
13:10
often doesn't work.
13:13
So what we're doing is, we're not only enlisting the multinationals,
13:15
we're giving them the tools to deliver this public good --
13:18
respect for human rights --
13:21
and we're checking.
13:23
You don't need to believe me. You shouldn't believe me.
13:25
Go to the website. Look at the audit results.
13:27
Ask yourself, is this company behaving
13:30
in a socially responsible way?
13:32
Can I buy that product
13:35
without compromising my ethics?
13:37
That's the way the system works.
13:40
I hate the idea
13:45
that governments are not protecting human rights around the world.
13:47
I hate the idea
13:50
that governments have dropped this ball
13:52
and I can't get used to the idea
13:54
that somehow we can't get them to do their jobs.
13:57
I've been at this for 30 years,
14:00
and in that time I've seen
14:02
the ability, the commitment, the will of government
14:04
to do this decline,
14:07
and I don't see them making a comeback right now.
14:09
So we started out thinking
14:12
this was a stopgap measure.
14:14
We're now thinking that, in fact,
14:16
this is probably the start
14:19
of a new way of regulating and addressing
14:21
international challenges.
14:24
Call it network governance. Call it what you will.
14:26
The private actors,
14:29
companies and NGOs,
14:32
are going to have to get together
14:34
to face the major challenges we are going to face.
14:36
Just look at pandemics --
14:38
swine flu, bird flu, H1N1.
14:40
Look at the health systems in so many countries.
14:43
Do they have the resources
14:45
to face up to a serious pandemic?
14:47
No.
14:50
Could the private sector and NGOs
14:52
get together and marshal a response?
14:55
Absolutely.
14:57
What they lack is that safe space
14:59
to come together, agree
15:01
and move to action.
15:03
That's what we're trying to provide.
15:05
I know as well
15:09
that this often seems
15:11
like an overwhelming level of responsibility
15:13
for people to assume.
15:15
"You want me to deliver human rights
15:17
throughout my global supply chain.
15:19
There are thousands of suppliers in there."
15:21
It seems too daunting, too dangerous,
15:24
for any company to take on.
15:27
But there are companies.
15:29
We have 4,000 companies who are members.
15:31
Some of them are very, very large companies.
15:34
The sporting goods industry, in particular,
15:36
stepped up to the plate and have done it.
15:38
The example, the role model, is there.
15:41
And whenever we discuss
15:45
one of these problems that we have to address --
15:47
child labor in cottonseed farms in India --
15:49
this year we will monitor 50,000 cottonseed farms in India.
15:52
It seems overwhelming.
15:56
The numbers just make you want to zone out.
15:58
But we break it down to some basic realities.
16:01
And human rights
16:04
comes down to a very simple proposition:
16:06
can I give this person their dignity back?
16:09
Poor people,
16:12
people whose human rights have been violated --
16:14
the crux of that
16:16
is the loss of dignity,
16:18
the lack of dignity.
16:20
It starts with just giving people back their dignity.
16:22
I was sitting in a slum outside Gurgaon
16:25
just next to Delhi,
16:28
one of the flashiest, brightest new cities
16:30
popping up in India right now,
16:33
and I was talking to workers
16:36
who worked in garment sweatshops down the road,
16:38
and I asked them what message they would like me to take to the brands.
16:40
They didn't say money.
16:44
They said, "The people who employ us
16:47
treat us like we are less than human,
16:50
like we don't exist.
16:53
Please ask them to treat us like human beings."
16:55
That's my simple understanding of human rights.
16:59
That's my simple proposition to you,
17:01
my simple plea to every decision-maker
17:04
in this room, everybody out there.
17:07
We can all make a decision
17:09
to come together
17:11
and pick up the balls and run with the balls
17:13
that governments have dropped.
17:16
If we don't do it,
17:18
we're abandoning hope,
17:20
we're abandoning our essential humanity,
17:22
and I know that's not a place we want to be,
17:25
and we don't have to be there.
17:27
So I appeal to you.
17:29
Join us, come into that safe space,
17:31
and let's start to make this happen.
17:33
Thank you very much.
17:35
(Applause)
17:37

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About the Speaker:

Auret van Heerden - Labor-rights activist
At the head of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), Auret van Heerden takes a practical approach to workers' rights, persuading corporations and NGOs to protect labor in global supply chains.

Why you should listen

Raised in apartheid South Africa, Auret van Heerden became an activist early. As a student, he agitated for workers' rights and co-wrote a book on trade unionism; he was tortured and placed in solitary confinement, then exiled in 1987. (Later, in post-apartheid South Africa, he became labor attaché to the South African mission to the UN.) For the past decade he's been the president and CEO of the Fair Labor Association, or FLA, an initiative that brings together companies, NGOs and universities to develop and keep up international labor standards in global supply chains.

Founded in 1999, the FLA grew out of a task force convened by President Clinton to investigate and end child labor and other sweatshop practices. Difficult enough in the US, protecting labor is even more complex in the global economy, with its multiple sets of laws and layers of contractors and outsourcers. Policing the entire chain is impossible, so the FLA works instead to help all parties agree that protecting workers is the best way to do business, and agree on voluntary initiatives to get there. The FLA worked with Apple Computer, for example, to inspect its global factories and seek raises and better working conditions at the Foxconn plant in China.

Van Heerden and FLA create a safe space in which stakeholders representing different interest groups within a global supply chain can work together to resolve conflicts of rights and interests, filling in the governance gap. Van Heerden's newest initiative: the Institute for Social and Environmental Responsibility, which will conduct research and convene multi-stakeholder forums on corporate responsibility.

More profile about the speaker
Auret van Heerden | Speaker | TED.com