Protecting Rights at the End of the Line: Stakeholder Engagement in Light Manufacturing
October 5-6, 2017
Lead Organizer: Shareen Hertel
The first rung on the ladder out of poverty for many poor people around the world has been a job in the light manufacturing sector. But contemporary global economic integration has placed downward pressure on wages and working conditions as firms face relentless consumer demand for lower prices, greater product variety, and faster turnaround times. Nation-states increasingly compete to attract light industry, yet many lack the capacity or political will to enforce high labor or environmental standards. And workers as well as community members often lack the leverage or skill to negotiate with companies (or governments) over the entry or exit of firms, the terms of employment, or the enforcement of workplace rights and labor standards.
Against these stark economic realities, a “business and human rights” (BHR) paradigm has emerged over the past decade that emphasizes the jointly shared responsibilities of business and government for safeguarding the rights of stakeholders – namely, the people affected by business activity (whether they work in a factory, own stock in a company, live near a plant, or consume a given product). But this paradigm is stronger on paper than in practice. Firms and states largely dictate the terms of engagement with stakeholders along with the scope and content of any remedy for harms suffered by workers or communities in the course of business activity. Even when parties are willing to work together, there are few practical tools available to help structure the terms of engagement (e.g., to define goals, measure harms and benefits, or broker the scope of policy or institutional reform).
In 2017, the University of Connecticut will host a two-day conference to explore the challenge of stakeholder engagement in contemporary light manufacturing. Workers in this sector are among the most vulnerable, firms experience some of the greatest competitive pressures, and communities find it difficult to negotiate with companies given the diffuse nature of related supply chains and the risk that making demands will simply push highly mobile firms to leave empowered communities. Existing academic research and policy innovation on stakeholder engagement has focused disproportionately on advances in the extractive sector, so this conference fills a critical gap by focusing on people at the end of the light manufacturing supply chain. Under what conditions are existing policy frameworks, management strategies, and community engagement models adaptable to their needs? Do light manufacturing companies that are more skilled at stakeholder engagement improve their business performance or not, and why? How do the incentive structures on the shop floor and in communities affect the potential for “successful” stakeholder engagement in this sector?
Panels will include participants who have explored stakeholder engagement through policy frameworks such as the UN Principles on Business & Human Rights (or “Ruggie” Principles), through firm-level and industry-wide monitoring and compliance programs (such as labor rights certification), and through direct involvement in brokering and/or evaluating multistakeholder initiatives.
The two-day format of the conference will enable participants to take part in comprehensive discussion of existing tools and strategies (Day 1) along with in-depth exploration of actual examples of empowered community engagement (Day 2). Moderated panels and roundtable discussion are balanced with hands-on exposure to multi-media archival data, along with plenty of time for interpersonal interaction over meals. This conference is also intended as a springboard for the creation of “White Papers” and other practical tools for strengthening company-community engagement in the challenging arena of light manufacturing.