Labour Rights in Vietnam: Progress and Challenges
A month after I first joined Unilever, in February 2013, Oxfam published a report on Unilever in Vietnam - “Labour Rights in Unilever’s Supply Chain – from Compliance to Good Practice”. A month later, we were conducting a joint stakeholders consultation in Vietnam. I remember reflecting at the time on the importance of the transparency Unilever had shown by opening not only its own doors but also the doors of its suppliers to Oxfam and how impactful this engagement with Oxfam was. In fact, I thought this was a perfect example of a Human Rights Impact Assessment on the heels of the agreement of the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Oxfam’s first report showed that there were issues that needed fixing at three levels – overall global policy and business practices, specific findings in our own Vietnam operations, as well as issues that Oxfam was focused on such as living wage and freedom of association.
Oxfam’s findings led to important internal dialogues at the executive and operational levels in Unilever. It also led us to make a series of commitments which drove much of our work over the next months, including strengthening of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan through the addition of three new pillars (Fairness in the Workplace; Opportunities for Women and Inclusive Business); the creation of the Responsible Sourcing Policy; and the development of a Framework for Fair Compensation.
Oxfam’s follow-up report into our Vietnam operations, which has just been published, reflects the substantial progress that we have made in responding to Oxfam’s recommendations and delivering on our commitments. It also clearly shows that we still have work to do and improvements to make. Our global and local teams will continue to take this forward, working with others, including our suppliers. Some of the issues raised by Oxfam are under our direct control but others are more systemic and require a more coordinated approach. I strongly believe that the only way to find sustainable solutions to long-term issues is to work with expert civil society organisations who look at issues with fresh eyes, and to build constructively critical and transparent relationships, where both parties can retain independence and work together toward solutions. Exactly like the relationship we have with Oxfam.
For many of us, both civil society and business alike, the pace of change is too slow. However, sustainable change doesn’t happen overnight, it is built every day. It is not a revolution but an evolution we want to accelerate. It is critically important to recognise that – for both the Unilever and Oxfam teams - open, frank dialogue and understanding of the challenges and opportunities, particularly at the local level, has fundamentally changed from when we started this work to where we are today. It was refreshing to see Oxfam encouraging our local team to lead the business engagement and discussion in Vietnam. A true testament to their dialogue through this initiative.
Transparency is vital to tackle the challenges head on and to move towards more collaborative and best-practice sharing rather than a traditional “compliance” approach. This is the only way to achieve systemic changes including on business practices. We have learnt a huge amount from this joint initiative with Oxfam. I hope that other businesses and civil society will share this approach and work with us to make positive change.
Always happy to see companies attempting to understand the impact of their operations on human rights. It is concerning however that this whole narrative treats the actual farmers as bystanders to the work of Unilever and Oxfam. It is a typical approach of the multinational and the international NGO assessing the plight of the nameless, helpless farmer. The patronising poignancy of the story is compounded because Vietnamese farmers and their government are among the least likely in the Global South to warrant such condescension. As long as companies and the NGOs they pay only conduct activities to know themselves better, rather than the people they purport to help, then it is a masquerade of responsibility. I hope that other businesses and civil society make positive change by actually helping farmers – not helping themselves.