The Paradox of Partnership: Assessing New Forms of NGO Advocacy on Labor Rights

By Hertel, Shareen | Ethics & International Affairs, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Paradox of Partnership: Assessing New Forms of NGO Advocacy on Labor Rights


Hertel, Shareen, Ethics & International Affairs


Book a flight on British Airways and the airline will calculate the carbon emissions of your journey. Pick up a chicken for dinner, and its label will tell you the amount of living space that the bird enjoyed before it landed in your supermarket. But buy a T-shirt at many high street retailers, and you will learn nothing about the person who produced it. We now know more about the living conditions of the animals that we eat than the humans who clothe us?

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Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in rule making on labor rights are as varied as the companies they seek to influence. Many of these NGOs consist of little more than a handful of staff cramped in a small office in New York or London, armed with an Internet connection, a list of contacts in developing countries, and a limited budget. Others have bigger budgets, more staff, wider networks of contacts, and greater public renown. Some focus only on the labor rights practices of a single corporation, while others seek to engage companies across a whole industry sector, country, or region. Regardless of their differences, NGOs involved in rule making on labor rights share a willingness to work astride a series of divides: the divide separating the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors; separating governmental and nongovernmental entities; and separating the production of goods with "public" characteristics (such as environmental protection or public health) from the production of private goods (such as consumer durables).

Labor rights NGOs straddle these numerous divides because the problems they seek to address are intrinsically multidimensional, and because they have multiple interests. For example, the problem of child labor requires expert auditing both to identify underage workers on-site in a factory and to ferret out irregularities in company records that mask underage hiring. Addressing child labor in the workplace also requires practical knowledge of social services so that children removed from factories can be connected with appropriate sources of support. No one NGO can accomplish everything--so there is a natural division of labor among groups with different types of skills and with interests in different aspects of complex problems, such as child labor. Labor rights NGOs thus craft their missions and their organizational structures distinctly. Some groups leave the NGO sector entirely, forgoing the traditional 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status under U.S. law in order to be able to gain revenue from the promotion of strategies to enhance corporate responsibility. (2) Others have hybrid forms of organizing that defy traditional categorization, such as labor unions involved in "social movement unionism"--a form of grassroots organizing involving dues-paying members alongside community residents (3)--or the creation of "worker centers," which function as nodes of organizing and as providers of community services. (4)

One common trend among labor rights advocacy organizations is the emergence of public-private partnerships (PPPs), defined here as relationships that groups in the nongovernmental/nonprofit sector establish with groups in the private, for-profit sector in the interest of promoting labor rights. (5) Most such relationships are collegial, although some evolve only after pitched confrontation. This article argues that labor rights PPPs are a growing phenomenon in corporate governance, and explains the contemporary context in which labor rights PPPs have arisen, explores the domains in which they are prevalent, and analyzes several of the governance challenges typical of rule-making arrangements of this type. It further argues that while they are a limited tool that can, at times, be used instrumentally by business for reputational reasons, and while in many cases PPPs ultimately fail to transform fundamentally the system of production they seek to redress, they nevertheless are a dynamic new form of rule making that merits close attention.

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