When and How to Communicate About Decent Work
Social compliance could be incorporated into the selection criteria for new suppliers, which would ensure that new suppliers share your companies’ commitment to decent work.
Engaging with your suppliers on decent work requires time and resources. Language, technology, geography (i.e. different time zones) are a few of the issues that can pose challenges. Also, many decent work issues are difficult to identify (child labour, for example, is well understood to be a "hidden violation" and is highly unlikely to be picked up by most audits) and may often lie deeper within your supply chain. Complex and non-transparent supply chains can complicate this exercise.
Share this toolkit with your suppliers and encourage them to use it with their suppliers.
You should also share and explain your company’s policy or code of labour practices/code of conduct before making a contractual agreement to highlight what your values and expectations for suppliers are. Asking your suppliers for their commitment will make it easier to raise possible issues on decent work later on.
There are many ways in which you can communicate about decent work to suppliers, for example:
- In regular company communications with your suppliers or at supplier conferences
- In individual supplier meetings pre-, during or post contract
- During supplier visits
- Through online tender processes, where these are in place
- Through awareness-raising and training sessions
WHO should you communicate with?
You can start by picking some important or strategic direct suppliers with reputations for greater risks of decent work deficits (e.g. suppliers of a commodity known to have higher risks). Conducting human rights due diligence in the supply chain will help businesses understand and identify where the biggest risks are.
HOW should you communicate?
Tackling the issue of decent work with suppliers is as much about HOW you convey your messages as it is about WHAT you say. The right environment, time, tone and approach will help you make greater and faster progress. Trust is key in this process - You should explain to your supplier that it is a shared responsibility — you are also committed to doing your share.
When faced with communication challenges that could include differences in understanding, expectation, or support for decent work, think about how to create a safe space for the decent work conversation. Trust building will require time and investment; this is not an easy exercise. Consider some of the questions below in understanding your unique relationship with suppliers:
- What are the terms of the relationship with your supplier? Some of these might be implicit or unacknowledged.
- Where does the power and leverage in the relationship lie? How could this influence your conversations with suppliers?
- What do you think your suppliers’ objectives are? To impress you? To gain work? To not lose existing work?
- What are the language or cultural differences that affect your suppliers’ understanding of decent working conditions?
Explore more questions and topics with the Communication Challenges handout.
Here are examples of possible gaps between your and your suppliers’ understanding of the expectations for decent work:
- There may be a gap between your understanding of decent working conditions, and the cultural and business context the supplier is operating in
- There may be a difference among suppliers in their understanding of decent working conditions, especially among large suppliers and SMEs
- There may be language issues which means that all parties may not have the same understanding of your expectations – consider using simple translation mechanisms or translators where relevant
- Refer to the national law, and where it is lacking, to relevant internationally recognized labour standards
- Avoid technical jargon or terms used within the larger multinational that may not be familiar to those without insider knowledge
- Think of how you can offer an alternative view of what is possible for the supplier to achieve
Topics to consider when navigating how to communicate about decent work
Strategies to address communication challenges
- Decent work discussions can take place during introductory conversations as part the of selection criteria for new suppliers
- Negotiations are often time-pressured, stressful times during which suppliers will not likely be able to discuss the challenges they face with regards to ensuring decent working conditions. It is often better to start discussions on your expectations as regards decent work before contractual negotiations or price-setting meetings. This is important information for the supplier to have when negotiating price
- Decent work should be part of ongoing discussions with suppliers
- Explain why you are having the conversation, and what you hope to achieve from it, in a way that the supplier can understand. Make sure the supplier understands that this is a joint effort.
- Be open with the supplier about how you intend to use any information the supplier shares and agree to confidentiality in discussions
- Share your own experience (e.g. give an example of what your company is doing to promote decent work; if relevant, explain that questions on decent work, human rights and sustainability are coming from your investors and/or company owners)
- Demonstrate respect – listen, be mindful of your tone, separate the person from the problem.
- Treat this as a dialogue, not a one-off conversation. Openness is built over time
- Role-model the behaviours you expect from suppliers. By treating suppliers with dignity and respect, they will experience first-hand what is asked of them
Trust and engagement are essential for effective and impactful relationships with suppliers. In a recent analysis conducted by NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business for Ecovadis, results showed that just half of the suppliers perceived that the buying organizations they work with are truly engaged in sustainability and actively partnering with them. 39% believed that “sustainability is important to their customers on paper but it is not reflected in any practical way in the way they work together.”
- Emphasize that it is a shared responsibility which should encourage them to share information
- Show curiosity and ask questions
- Consider creative ways to raise understanding, e.g. through an award for best suppliers’ actions on decent work or awareness-raising actions on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
- Provide information or links to your company’s website that explain its position on decent work
- Discuss the opportunities and potential financial gains – from more or longer-term contracts, for example – that could open up as a result of ensuring improved working conditions
- Use your position, supported by examples of what your company and others are doing to counter-cultural and peer pressure barriers
- Show that their opinion/feedback matters and create a common platform for feedback, such as worker engagement technology applications
- Set them up for success by providing support and making engagement on decent work easy
The WEST Principles wish to maximize the impact of technology-driven efforts to identify and address risks of impacts on workers in global supply chains. They encourage the adoption of a common set of guidelines to ensure that technology is used for the purpose of improving worker’s conditions.
Kellogg K Partners Advantage: Engaging strategically with suppliers
In 2017, Kellogg launched K Partners Advantage, a new strategic supplier engagement and development program focused on enhancing buyer-supplier dialogue within their supply chain. With an expansive network of over 20,000 global suppliers, Kelloggs aims to improve labour standards and protections by opening up communication streams and grievance mechanisms between supply chain tiers.
Through the program, Kellogg conducts Joint Business Planning meetings and regular supplier feedback and check-ins to expand on their internal and external human rights monitoring and compliance verification systems. This includes using self-assessments from factories on labour policies and procedures to identify gaps in worker protection, establishing a third-party Hot Line which is available to over 30,000 Kellogg employees in 18 countries and conducting on site worker interviews in line with Sedex’s SMETA best practice guidelines. Furthermore, as part of Kellogg’s supplier engagement, the company commits to responding to grievances raised regarding certain suppliers. Kellogg has also participated in a series of Wilmar Supplier Workshops to address salient labour concerns in the palm oil industry, developed in partnership with BSR in Indonesia. Along side other key retailers, Kellogg engaged in dialogue with small to medium Indonesian palm oil suppliers, including 60 participants representing 30 supplier companies, and the Head of the Labour Department for North Sumatra Province. Together they identified key human rights issues, including minimum and living wage, worker contract status, grievance mechanisms and worker unions, and decided on collective actions to address them.