The Worker Rights Consortium 1 is an independent labour rights monitoring organisation which conducts investigations in factories specialised in sewing apparel and other products, which are then sold in the United States and Canada. WRC focuses especially on apparel and other goods bearing university logos.
As of 2021, over 150 universities, colleges, and high schools are affiliated with WRC. 2 They have adopted a manufacturing code of conduct which contains basic protection for workers in each of the following areas: wages, working hours and overtime compensation, freedom of association, workplace safety and health, women’s rights, child labour and forced labor, harassment and abuse in the workplace, and non-discrimination and compliance with local law. This code provides for its implementation in relevant contracts with licensees. Affiliates have to make sure that licensees provide WRC with information on the names and locations of all factories involved in the production of their logo goods. WRC makes a factory database available on its website. 3 WRC conducts factory inspections. These inspections may be initiated in response to complaints. WRC publishes the case summaries, full public reports, and related documents and background information for many of these investigations. Reports include detailed information on findings, the WRC’s recommendations for remedies (from reinstatement of illegally fired workers, to urgent safety improvements, to back pay) and whether or not brands and factories have implemented these remedies. 4
Who can file a complaint?
Complaints can be filed by any party regarding alleged violations of the code of conduct.
Process and Outcome
WRC does not launch a full-scale investigation in response to every complaint it receives. The WRC takes into account the following factors in deciding whether to proceed with an investigation: “the severity of the alleged violations, the number of workers affected, the views of knowledgeable local non-governmental organizations about the credibility of the allegations, whether university-related brand name companies possess substantial leverage over the factory, and whether workers themselves support an assessment.” 7
If accepted the complaint, the WRC launches an investigation, which includes “interviews with workers outside of the workplace, in locations where workers feel comfortable, as well as gathering of relevant documentation, and meetings with management and other knowledgeable sources.” 8
When violations are identified at a factory, the WRC develops recommendations for remedial action, in consultation with workers.
The WRC works with US apparel companies that are procuring goods from the factory in question to encourage the implementation of these recommendations. When a company is unwilling to press its supplier factory to undertake the appropriate remedial steps, WRC will report this to affiliated schools and the public.
Colleges and universities that have a relationship with the company in question may then choose to communicate with their licensee and/or take other action as deemed appropriate by each individual institution.
FLA & WRC Third Party Complaint mechanism in Action
Estofel (2005-2009) 9
In November 2007, Estofel Apparel Factory in Guatemala closed without legally mandated severance and other termination compensation for its workers. Shortly after the closure of Estofel’s factories, COVERCO (Commission for the Verification of Corporate Codes of Conduct), a Guatemalan labour rights organisation, alerted the FLA about the situation. COVERCO also contacted FLA-affiliated company, Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH), that had sourced directly from the factory until a few months before the closure. In turn, PVH pressed Estofel to provide full severance payments. PVH also pressed for the payment of full severance to Estofel workers with Singaporean company Ghim Li, a business partner of Estofel.
In February 2008, WRC collected testimonies from the complainant workers, reviewed relevant documents, and communicated with factory management. Estofel was initially slow to cooperate in a meaningful way, but WRC was ultimately able to meet with factory management in April 2008, along with a representative of Vestex, a Guatemalan trade association that has played an important role in the case. Upon request from WRC, the company subsequently provided a range of documents.
On the basis of the evidence gathered, WRC found that upon closing the factory’s two manufacturing units in October and November of 2007, Estofel had paid workers less than 50% of the severance and other termination benefits due to them by law. The non-payment of termination compensation affected nearly 1,000 workers.
In March 2008, University of Washington (UW) officials communicated to WRC and FLA concerns about violations of workers’ rights and failure to pay severance at Estofel, based on information gathered by UW students during field work conducted in Guatemala in February 2008. 10 UW administration helped convene an ad hoc group consisting of representatives of WRC, FLA, University of Washington, GFSI Inc., Hanes brands (licensor of the Champion brand to GFSI), Phillips-Van Heusen, Ghim Li, and the Collegiate Licensing Company (licensing agent for the University of Washington). The group began meeting regularly via telephone in May 2008, and continued to do so until payments to the workers in question were made in late 2008 and early 2009.
COVERCO started its field investigation on 27 June 2008, and produced a final report in August 2008. Based on information provided by the factory, COVERCO reported that Estofel had a total of 974 employees on 15 October 2007, around the time when the closure process started. COVERCO estimated that the 974 former Estofel workers were due total benefits of $1,375,175, however the factory had already paid benefits amounting to $478,997. After a negotiation period, Estofel ultimately agreed to a settlement that would exclude payment of indirect labor benefits. Estofel conditioned the payments as follows: (1) workers who received the additional payments must execute a desistimiento (withdrawal) terminating legal claims against the factory; (2) those workers who had filed lawsuits must drop them; and (3) 20 February 2009 was scheduled as the deadline for making the payments.
The WRC worked with Coverco and the FLA to design an outreach programme to contact the workers owed and inform them of the offer of payment. Because of the significant time that had elapsed since their dismissals, an extensive outreach effort was needed. Coverco’s work in this regard included the placement of advertisements in Guatemalan newspapers, and collaboration with an ad hoc leadership Committee of former Estofel workers.
Coverco was ultimately able to reach nearly 95% of the 974 workers identified in its August 2008 report. 11 An additional eleven out of thirteen workers subsequently identified as being due compensation were also reached. In total, between December 4, 2008, when payments began, and February 20, 2009, the closing date set by Estofel for the payment period, 871 workers out of 974 had received compensation, with the total amounting to $526 000.
Fair Food Program: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker-based human rights organization internationally, built on a farmworker community in the US. 12 In 2011, CIW launched the Fair Food Program (FFP), based on a model of partnership among farmworkers, Florida tomato growers, and participating retail buyers, including Subway, Whole Foods, and Walmart. In 2015, the Program expanded into tomatoes in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, as well as Florida strawberries and peppers. 13 The Fair Food Program consists of:
- A wage increase supported by a price premium paid by corporate purchasers.
- Human-rights-based Code of Conduct, applicable throughout food industries. 14
Participant buyers have to sign the Fair Food Agreements with the CIW and cooperate with the monitoring requirements and purchasing guidelines of the program. As of 2021, participant buyers included Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, Trader Joe’s and Walmart. 15 A list of participant growers can also be found online. 16
The Fair Food Code of Conduct has been negotiated with workers, growers and buyers. It includes provisions prohibitions of forced labor, child labor, use or threat of physical violence against, sexual harassment, discrimination and systemic failure to pay all wages earned, among others.
Under the Fair Food Program, Participating Growers agree to:
- A wage increase supported by the “penny per pound” price premium Participating Buyers pay for their tomatoes (…)
- Compliance with the human rights-based Code of Conduct (…)
- Worker-to-worker education sessions conducted by the CIW (…)
- A worker-triggered complaint resolution mechanism leading to complaint investigation, corrective action plans, and, if necessary, suspension of a farm’s Participating Grower status, and thereby its ability to sell to Participating Buyers (…)
- Health and safety committees on every farm (…)
- Specific and concrete changes in harvesting operations to improve workers’ wages and working conditions (…)
- Ongoing auditing of the farms by the Fair Food Standards Council(…)" 17
Under the Fair Food Program, participant buyers agree to: 18
Sign legally binding agreements between CIW and Participating Buyers. The agreements include two commitments:
- The Fair Food Premium: Participating Buyers commit to pay the Fair Food Premium on top of the regular price they pay for the raw materials (tomatoes, strawberried, etc). The Fair Food Standards Council tracks these premiums payments through the supply chain and to its final distribution as a line-item bonus on workers’ paychecks.
- Market Enforcement of the Fair Food Code of Conduct: Participating Buyers are required to suspend purchases from growers who have failed to comply with the Code of Conduct.
The program is monitored by the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), which is the dedicated third-party monitoring organization whose principal tasks is to conduct in-depth audits on Participating Growers’ farms. The FFSC has access to company records at the farm office level and access to the fields. The audit process includes interviews conducted with very large percentages of workers – normally over half a company’s workforce, in the field as well as off-site. Additionally, FFSC auditors interview all levels of management, from senior officers to field supervisors, and review company policies and logs to assess implementation of the Code of Conduct. Auditing also includes review of the company’s payroll records, to check workers remunerations, timekeeping systems and that the Fair Food Premium is accurately distributed. 19 After the audits, the FFSC generates a report, with a corrective action plan for the farm. Failure to comply with an approved Corrective Action Plan will result in suspension of a Participating Grower from the FFP for the designated time period. 20
Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, a retired New York State Supreme Court Justice is the Executive Director of the FFSC.
Finally, The FFP Working Group, which is composed of representatives from Participating Growers and CIW, establishes the policies and procedures needed to ensure successful implementation of the Fair Food Code of Conduct.
When workers encounter a potential violation of the Code of Conduct, they can use a toll-free complaint line, which is answered by a bilingual Fair Food Standards Council investigator, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These are the same investigators who carry out the audits. Workers are informed about this complaint line in the booklets received at the time of hire, during CIW worker-to-worker training on the farms each season and on their paycheck stubs. Workers receive hotline cards from FFSC staff during our audit visits to the field. 21
Complaints are investigated and resolved by FFSC, normally in collaboration with growers. Whenever possible, “complaint resolutions include an educational component, consisting of meetings with relevant supervisors and crews, so that all workers on the farm can see that complaints are heard and resolved without retaliation, and the farm’s commitment to the Program is reconfirmed.” 22 The program’s complaint resolution process is a non-adversarial or alternative dispute resolution process. 23
No formal hearings are required, unless there is an appeal that goes to arbitration.
Participating Grower shall address to the satisfaction of the FFSC every complaint brought to its attention by the FFSC or a Qualifying Worker through an approved Complaint Resolution. Violations of the code are divided in three levels: Article I Violations (use of forced labor and child labor), which result in automatic suspension of a Participating Grower from the FFP for the designated time period, Article II Violations, which require specified remedial action by the Participating Grower to avoid suspension from the FFP for the designated time period and/or may result in probation for the Participating Grower; Article III violations, which do not trigger specified remedial action, but the Corrective Action Plan approved to address Article III violations may include one or more of the remedies associated with Article II violations. Failure to comply with an approved Corrective Action Plan or Complaint Resolution for any category of violation will result in suspension of a Participating Grower from the FFP for the designated time period. 24