Labour Standards

What are labour standards and fair trading?

Image Courtesy Anna Dziubinska

Labour standards and fair trading are both ways of describing a set of rules that prescribe how workers should and should not be treated by governments, companies, and industry. These rules come in many forms, as laws, international standards, and voluntary commitments and pledges.

Labour and fair trading issues are always changing. Some current concerns include child labour, forced labour and human trafficking, gender equality, sexual abuse, disability rights, migrant and refugee worker rights, and discrimination.

The broad goal of labour rights and fair trading initiatives is to ensure a decent workplace for all people. Unfortunately, all over the world, some have no choice but to work in conditions that violate their basic human rights.

Labour Standards in Australia

Australia started as a penal colony in New South Wales in 1788, where convicts were forced to work without pay for the administration or private landholders. Trade unions in Australia were suppressed and even considered illegal. Laws required workers to be, above all, obedient and loyal to their employers. Any disobedience resulted in jail sentences or hard labour.

The first trade unions emerged in the early 19th century to increase low wages and to decrease work hours for highly skilled urban workers. A number of instruments, such as labour laws, nonprofit organisations, and trade unions, now exist to protect present-day Aussies. However, in a global interconnected world, supply chains extend far beyond our borders.

Unfortunately, other countries have more lax labour standards. Products, made by workers subjected to cruelty, hazardous work arrangements, and forced labour trafficking, end up on our shelves. To end these injustices, we have to stop supporting companies, industries, and governments that fuel this abuse.

The Biggest Issues & Why They Are Important

1. Complying with Child & Forced Labour

Image Courtesy Mi Pham

The trafficking of forced labor is a global problem. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 21 million people are trapped in forced labour without access to trade union protection or legal help.

Over half of them (11.5 million) are women, 9.5 million are men, and 5.5 million are children. Roughly 10 percent are used for state-imposed labour like child soldiers, and the remaining 90 percent belong to the private sector for mostly commercial activity.

ILO also estimates that there are 168 million child workers worldwide, most of which work in the agricultural sector. Child labor issues affect all regions of the world, but migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are especially at risk.

Why It’s Important

Companies contribute to the problem by outsourcing part of all of their production to factories that use forced or child labour in their supply chains. Ignorance is no excuse. Businesses are expected to know what’s going on and take steps to eliminate the use of forced and child labour and they can do that by understanding and implementing fair trading agreements.

2. Low, Late & Unpaid Wages

In many countries workers don’t receive living wages. The wage is so low, a person cannot live above the poverty line. In other cases, wages can be paid late or never paid at all, creating situations of debt bondage or forced labour. When this happens, most workers don’t have access to legal help.

Taking advantage of exceedingly low wages in other countries allows manufacturers to increase their profit margins. They produce goods at an extremely low cost and sell to richer markets at a higher price.

Why It’s Important

Many companies source from suppliers in less developed countries to take advantage of cost savings. However, these low prices come at another cost—the cost of a worker’s ability to live above the poverty line and afford basic necessities. Compliance with these practices encourages the never-ending poverty cycle of millions, while fair trading agreements can begin to solve the problem.

3. Hazardous Working Conditions 

Image Courtesy Adam Birkett
Image Courtesy Adam Birkett

Less developed countries sometimes lack standards to ensure healthy and safe work sites. Workers have to endure a range of exploitative conditions: working with chemicals without adequate ventilation, working in factories on the verge of collapse, working extremely long shifts, working without breaks, working under extreme duress, and so on.

For instance, in pre-labour rights Australia, people worked up to 14 hours a day, six days a week without sick or holiday leave, and employers could sack employees at any time without reason. Uncivilized working conditions are no longer a threat to Australians but still affect millions of others.

Why It’s Important

These conditions violate the human right to a healthy and safe environment. Many companies outsource at least some element of their supply chains to lesser developed countries, sometimes without knowing how partners treat their workers. Again, compliance or ignorance of these practices continues the cycle of abuse and is unethical while fair trading agreements can begin to address it.

4. Cruelty & Sexual Violence

Workers also experience cruel and degrading treatment at the hands of superiors. The biggest risk is sexual assault. The most at-risk groups include domestic workers, migrant workers, lower-status workers, service sector workers, and sex workers. Both men and boys as well as women and girls are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Australia has been criticised by more than 100 countries for its asylum laws and refugee policies and its treatment of indigenous peoples. Both groups have suffered physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The political battleground at a federal government level remains highly divided on what a humane or fair approach to these issues looks like.

Why It’s Important

It’s the responsibility of any company to know how workers are being treated throughout its operations. Cruelty and abuse should be handled seriously, and steps should be taken to eliminate it altogether.

Take Action: How to Support Fair Labour When You Shop

Image Courtesy Armando Castillejos

Companies contribute to labour rights problems, knowingly or unknowingly, by using partners, factories, or suppliers that violate human rights and fair labour standards.

We believe that companies should be informed and proactive about what’s going on in their supply chain. They have a direct responsibility to respect human rights in their operations, even when a country has lax standards.

Sadly, not all companies do this. Over the years, big brands have come under scrutiny for overlooking human and labour rights violations. As well as being unethical, it can have disastrous effects on the brand and future of the company.

Want to do something about it? So do we. The easiest way to get involved is to stop supporting companies who comply with human injustice or downright violate labour rights, both in their own operations and in the wider supply chain – especially through the use of fair trading agreements.

Look for companies and products who are involved with the following programs, standards, certifications, and pledges.

FAIRTRADE Mark. When a product carries the FAIRTRADE Mark it means the producers and traders have met Fairtrade Standards designed to address the imbalance of power in trading relationships, unstable markets, and the injustices of conventional trade. The standards…

  • set a Fairtrade Minimum Price that aims to cover the costs of sustainable production.
  • pay a Premium on top of the agreed Fairtrade Minimum Price to help producers improve the quality of their lives. It’s normally invested in education, healthcare, and farm improvements.
  • require buyers to give a financial advance on contracts, called pre-financing, if producers ask for it. This gives producers access to capital and helps overcome the biggest obstacle to business development.
  • facilitate long-term trading partnerships and enable greater producer control over the trading process. With the Fairtrade organisation, producers can influence prices, premiums, standards, and overall strategy.
  • set clear core and development criteria to guarantee the conditions of production and trade of all Fairtrade certified products are socially and economically fair and environmentally responsible.

The UTZ Certification shows shoppers that products have been sourced, from farm to shelf, in a sustainable manner. To become certified, all UTZ suppliers have to follow a Code of Conduct. The code guides companies on better farming methods, working conditions, and care for nature. This process leads to better production, a better environment, and a better life for everyone.

The SA8000 is the international standard for Social Accountability. It is designed to empower and protect all personnel within an organisation’s control and influence. This includes workers employed by the organisation itself and by its suppliers, subcontractors, sub-suppliers, and home workers. Those complying with the SA8000 have adopted policies and procedures that protect the basic human rights of workers.

The Better Work Program brings together all levels of the garment industry to improve working conditions, to promote the respect of labour rights, and to boost the competitiveness of apparel businesses. It’s active in 1300 factories employing more than 1.6 million workers in seven countries. Better Work advises factories, governments, brands, and unions.

Image Courtsey Janko Ferlic

Joining the UN Global Compact is a public commitment to human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption. Its 10 principles are:

  • Principle 1: Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; and…
  • Principle 2: make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.
  • Principle 3: Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • Principle 4: the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour;
  • Principle 5: the effective abolition of child labour; and
  • Principle 6: the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
  • Principle 7: Businesses should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges;
  • Principle 8: undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility; and
  • Principle 9: encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.
  • Principle 10: Businesses should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery.

Responsible Sourcing Cotton Pledge. The Cotton Program at the Responsible Sourcing Network supports cotton value chains that aim to eliminate the most heinous human rights abuses and environmental destruction at the field level. The network advocates for transparency, traceability, and accountability. Companies that sign pledge not to knowingly source Uzbek cotton for manufacturing any of their products until the government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child and adult labour in the cotton sector.

Ethical Clothing Australia is an accreditation body collaborating with local textile, clothing, and footwear companies to ensure their Australian supply chains are transparent and legally compliant. The program maps a company’s Australian supply chain throughout the entire cut, make, and trim process through third-party compliance audits. The ECA helps protect the rights of both local factory-based workers and outworkers.