Evidence Transnational Campaigns on Human Rights Can Really Work

Originally published 20 August 2019 in Business & Human Rights Resource Centre; Author: Bama Athreya, Fellow at Open Society Foundations & an advisor to C&A Foundation

A recent study finds that global campaigns on labour rights work – but need continued support to bring about real change. 

Human rights advocates have worked across borders to pressure global corporations and others for many years – but it’s hard to measure results. Is there evidence that transnational campaigns actually work? I recently had the opportunity to work with USAID and a team of independent researchers to review the evidence and consider this question.

The report – led by Dr Marissa Brookes of U-C Riverside – focused on global labour campaigns targeting transnational companies and industries. Dr Brookes has been compiling a database on such campaigns for many years. In addition to summarizing the literature more generally, the review took an in-depth look at four campaigns, each in a very different country and focused on a very different industry.

The four cases were Raffles Hotel in CambodiaRussell Athletic in HondurasBridgestone-Firestone tire company in Liberia, and the cut flower industry in Colombia. Importantly, we were able to examine evidence about the long-term effects of these campaigns in the years since they were initiated.

We convened an experts’ discussion on July 24 to discuss the findings with leading advocates, academics and donors, including some who had been directly active in at least one of the four campaigns. We were even able to include Edwin Cisco, a Liberian labour leader who was one of the initiators of the Firestone/Liberia campaign. 

Top take-aways from this discussion, as follows, may be relevant for advocates everywhere:

All transnationalism is local. Local grassroots actors – representing workers and communities and their demands – must be at the centre of effective campaigns. Without a strong and legitimate local voice, there cannot be lasting change. For example, in Cambodia hotel workers have protected gains over many years because they were able to build power locally.  In contrast, in Colombia flower workers still struggle to maintain small wins.

But sometimes local is transnational. It used to be that campaigns feared companies would shift production to avoid organizing drives in a ‘race to the bottom’. But the new race to the bottom is not the movement of production, it’s the movement of workers. Increasingly, migrant workers are taking over industries with hard-fought gains, such as the Malaysian electronics sector. Therefore transnational organizing of migrants needs to be elevated, and campaigns need to span geographies and industries.

Success is not in what you can measure. While campaigners may have been looking for specific outcomes (such as winning a collective bargaining agreement, or a change in wages or benefits), in the long run the cases all revealed that success was broader and deeper than these immediate outcomes. Indeed, it may be the case that even where specific targets were not achieved, local activists saw gains through their participation in the campaigns.

Years after the Bridgestone/Firestone campaign had ended, Liberian labor leader Edwin Cisco was able to point out important long-term gains that had not been captured by the ‘evidence’. He could recall a time prior to the campaign when unions had no role in the country’s broader civic life. Today, he said, consultations with unions over relevant policy matters, while not always honored in practice, are expected to take place. This represents a subtle but profound shift in the power dynamics around labor unions far beyond campaign demands.

We need deep coalitions no matter what, but this means addressing new threats to civil society. It’s impossible to know when solidarity campaigns will be needed, but campaigns can only kick in if local actors have ongoing relationships with transnational networks and actors.  Those relationships can’t be built around one-off corporate campaigns. The civic ‘infrastructure’ has to be in place, and it has to be built on a fundamental shared vision regarding ‘rules of the game’ and worker empowerment that goes beyond corporate accountability.

Global trade union structures, while imperfect, provide some architecture for this. These structures need to become more inclusive of other civil society actors. And they need to take note of the changing environment for civil society globally, including the use of new forms of surveillance and disinformation. We all need to up our game on digital protection for unionists and rights advocates.

Donors: Don’t be discouraged! The evidence is real: These campaigns do make a difference in the long run. However, we need to be patient and be flexible in our consideration of what constitutes ‘results’. It’s hard to capture long-term shifts in power dynamics or movement cohesion in a logframe.

Link to further reading here.