The UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) has today issued an eagerly-awaited research report looking at the impacts on workers of the labour codes of practice adopted by its corporate members.

Prepared over three years by the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, the report represents the most comprehensive attempt so far to assess whether the private sector code of conduct approach, in vogue for the past decade, has had any demonstrable positive effects for workers. The researchers have taken a case-study approach using three country studies in three sectors – garments, footwear and fruit in India, Vietnam and South Africa respectively, together with two company studies – UK horticulture and bananas in Costa Rica. Findings are based on interviews with ETI member companies, agents, managers, workers and stakeholders.

The results make for mixed reading. In general – and there are many variations and nuances to these in supporting country case studies – the researchers found that codes of labour practice:

  • impacted positively on health and safety
  • tended to reduce working hours
  • encouraged greater compliance with minimum wage legislation
  • reduced the incidence of child labour
  • encouraged greater awareness of national labour legislation

However, codes were less successful in:

  • supporting extensions of freedom of association and collective bargaining
  • addressing discrimination issues, particularly gender
  • ensuring regular employment as there was evidence of a move towards use of casual and temporary workers

In addition, for some workers the benefit of reduced hours was offset by the resulting reduction in wages, and removal of young workers from the labour force was seen by some as contributing to social problems.

The report identifies several drivers for positive change:

  • the level of commitment from the ETI member company or supplier
  • frequent and consistent communication from buying companies on ethical trade
  • regular assessment of supplier sites backed by good feedback and support
  • training of workers and supervisors on codes and provision of multiple channels for reporting of breaches and non-compliances

The report contains a raft of recommendations for the ETI, brands/retailers, trade unions, NGOs and auditors to strengthen the ethical trade process focused around:

  • working more collaboratively, both among companies and between stakeholder groups
  • extending codes to all workers including casual, contract and migrant workers and those further up the supply chain
  • shifting focus and resources for ensuring compliance with codes to sourcing countries
  • making ethical trade more central to core business practice ie: through integrating purchasing practices with ethical requirements

These are challenging issues that are likely to provoke considerable debate within ETI’s tripartite membership and beyond and inform ETI’s future agenda for some years hence.