#12_Labour standards and NGOs: Civil society’s watchdogs or corporate puppets?

Non-governmental organizations (NGO) figure prominently in almost all debates around labour standards these days. This has not been always the case and may already be indicative of a shift towards private governance in many areas concerning the enforcement of labour standards more broadly. However, there are various types of NGOs with profound differences raising doubts about using the term “NGO” at all (e.g. Yaziji & Doj, 2009). As a descriptor “non-governmental” is a negative characterization denoting all entities which are neither a political party nor a government authority nor an agency with state-based legitimation, yet operating in one particular area of social life, i.e. the public law-making process. Seen from a broader societal perspective, however, civil society organizations (CSOs) form an independent universe of all sorts of organizations (Williams, Heery & Abbott, 2011). Populating almost any societal domain, these CSOs range from associations in the arts, sports or leisure activities to third-sector organizations or cooperatives in local communities (e.g. Clemens, 2005; Schneiberg, King & Smith, 2008). CSOs operate in distinct modes either as political associations, self-help organizations, advocacy organizations or as social businesses, or a combination of all these (Bartley, 2007; Fransen & Burgoon, 2015). Within still another terminology, focusing more on the political domain and social conflict, social movement organizations (SMOs) are mobilizing concerns of interest groups such as environmental, feminist, or anti-discrimination activism (e.g. Wang & Soule, 2012).

In parallel to the importance of network governance in the field of human rights (Ruggie, 2003), also in the policy field around labour inspection NGOs, CSOs, and SMOs are said to play an important role (e.g. Bartley, 2017; Marx, Brando & Lein, 2017; Fransen & Burgoon, 2015). In this field, the group of CSOs range from unions and business-oriented associations, to consumer groups, workers’ initiatives, but also other interest groups identified by issue (e.g. Waddock, 2008 for an extensive overview). There are advocacy SMOs as well as CSOs that offer services such as certification and auditing (e.g. Fransen & Burgoon, 2015); more institutionalized and formalized organizations such as unions and employer associations exist alongside more informal types such as activists’ networks (e.g. Zajak, Egels-Zandén & Piper, 2017).

For labour standards enforcement, CSOs can exert largely indirect pressures on violators. Especially advocacy SMOs have become important watchdogs for checking compliance with labour standards and directing media attention to severe violations (Bartley, 2017; Fransen & Burgoon, 2015). Being capable of reaching down to and up from the grass-roots level of local community activism, CSOs give those a voice who are not heard through formalized channels of representation. CSOs can do so in a rather flexible manner, sometimes surpassing bureaucratic procedures of the formalized political process and overcoming barriers between different groups in multi-stakeholder settings. For doing so, they deploy various techniques and tactics from campaigning and lobbying the legislators (e.g. European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ); The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)) to legal counselling (e.g. Corporate Accountability Lab). In addition, CSOs try to combine their efforts by bringing together various specialized CSOs under the umbrella of a multi-stakeholder initiative (for garments see Clean clothes campaign; for electronics, the Good electronics network). Still other CSOs mobilize consumers for exposing brands and firms offering products spoilt by labour standard violations in the respective supply network (e.g. Ballet, Bhukuth, & Carimentrand, 2014; e.g. Fair Labor Association). Apart from mere participation in standard setting debates such as those around the ISO 26000 (e.g. Helms, Oliver & Webb, 2012) and a presence in the governing bodies of auditing organizations, a couple of CSOs also has developed into independent auditing providers (Raj-Reichert, 2019, e.g. Fair Wear Foundation; Social Accountability International).

However, CSOs – like many forms of civic engagement and activism – are confronted with a couple of typical obstacles limiting their capacity for supporting compliance with labour standards (Anner, 2017). A couple of these problems concern CSOs’ organizational forms, which are often characterized by a certain instability and lack of resources. Additionally, CSOs usually rely on voluntary donations as a form of funding. From these shortcomings also fundamental dilemmas arise that place some restrictions on CSO’s policy making, with regards to their external mission and their internal integrity.

As for the external mission, many CSOs must deal implicitly or explicitly with the issue of co-optation (e.g. Williams, Heery & Abbott, 2011). This peculiar obstacle to CSO activity originates to a certain extent in the complexities of the CSO-business relationship, i.e. the encounters between private business corporations and CSOs in private regulation. On the one hand, CSOs of the advocacy type often deal with the deficiencies of private business such as corporate misconduct and irresponsibility, placing the SMOs as watchdogs in conflict with business firms. On the other hand, there is a tendency of CSOs to enter into collaboration with business firms for influencing corporate labour practices. Business corporations, in turn, may exploit such collaboration to gain credibility for activities which contradict the CSOs’ missions.

In the field of labour standards, this problem gets even more complicated in areas where either business firms themselves or associations formed or supported by private business engage in societally relevant activities which are also the domain of independent CSOs. These business oriented NGOs are also voluntary, but purpose-driven associations which may offer certain services as club goods to the participating businesses (e.g. Waddock, 2008, for example many standard issuing agencies are organized as private associations, Responsible Business Alliance). Certainly, it may be too harsh a criticism to qualify all these associations and voluntary activities as just representing corporate puppets, only because business firms are involved too. But, in the public debate such organizations are suspicious of exerting undue political and societal influence under the masquerade of public benevolence usually expected from truly independent CSOs (for a disentanglement of these complexities around the distrust in corporations controlling politics see Clemens, 2005). Hence, CSOs, and even more so movement-oriented SMOs, put their credibility at risk when they collaborate with business NGOs.

Furthermore, the selected domains and the internal representativeness of CSOs are occasionally questioned because their members’ goals are defined either too narrowly or too widely, there is a huge variety in political orientations among CSO members, and the internal procedures for articulation may be opaque. Combined, CSOs become vulnerable to accusations about stretching their activities to far beyond their jurisdictions, concentrating on one single issue too much, thereby neglecting others of equal importance, as well as blocking disadvantaged people’ direct participation or playing an agency role for others’ political interests.

A couple of these concerns is also found in the discussion around unions and their relationship with CSOs (e.g. Egels-Zandén & Hyllman, 2011). On the one hand, unions are part of one of the oldest social movements, for some even an archetypal one: the labour movement combining political labour parties, trade unions, workers’ self-help associations, but also cooperatives, and other organizations dedicated to enhance workers’ welfare. On the other hand, over time the political struggles institutionalized parts of the labour movement: labour parties won elections and became part of governments reforming labour law and extending public welfare; and, trade unions won representation rights and recognition in collective bargaining. Other segments like self-help associations have differentiated into independent societal domains, thereby weaving the labour movement into the organizational fabric of society.

This can also be seen in the governance of international labour standards where unions are part of the International Labour Organization’s governing bodies, alongside with governments and employers, and are also involved in what is called an international labour diplomacy (e.g. International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)). In many countries unions and workers’ representatives enjoy rights in supervising labour standards on the workplace level (e.g. the health & safety committee) guaranteed by the labour law. The majority of CSOs does not entertain such a strong form of institutionalization which may lead to conflict between unions and CSOs. However, in many countries, union strength is low and collective bargaining is close to non-existence, at least in the private sector (Van Daele, Müller, & Waddington, 2019). One part of this weakness resides in the fact that many of today’s strongest movements are not primarily formed around issues of work and occupation, but around issues like equal opportunity, work-life balance, gender identity and similar ones. In this situation, CSOs may be better prepared to reach out to the disadvantaged than traditionally operating unions (Tapia, Ibsen & Kochan, 2015; Piore & Safford, 2006). Therefore, unions have begun to use activities that resemble those of NGO activism (e.g. Cumbers, Nativel & Routledge, 2008). In the area of global labour standards, examples are the organization of self-help in education (Global Labour University (GLU)), campaigning (Sarkar & Kuruvilla, 2020, e.g. International Labour Rights Forum; LabourStart), transnational union networks (e.g. Helfen, & Fichter, 2013) or the collaboration with corporations for standard compliance (e.g. Action, Collaboration, Transformation (ACT)). Most importantly, however, unions collaborate and join CSOs in multi-stakeholder initiatives, and vice versa (e.g. Accord on Fire and Building Safety, 2017).

Inasmuch as NGOS, CSOs and SMOs are filling the huge gaps existing today in a proper governance of labour standards, they can play a productive role as watchdogs, third-party certifiers, initiators of collective action, and mediators for collaborative solutions. Inasmuch alliances can be forged between CSOs, unions, and willing business firms (Armbruster-Sandoval, 2005: Reinecke & Donaghey, 2015), CSOs may contribute to finding new solutions in private governance supplementing the state-based and collective bargaining approaches to labour inspection. This may also assist in curing some of the dysfunctions in today’s labour inspection. However, a careful consideration of CSOs’ weaknesses avoids an overstretching of the case for CSOs. Given CSOs’ apparent vulnerabilities and limitations, CSOs cannot be expected to provide a stand-alone solution for the ongoing problems of labour standard violations. Proclaiming the contrary would mean to overburden CSOs with a responsibility they are not made for, likely with damaging consequences for CSOs’ legitimacy in the long run.

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