Rachel Wilshaw

Podcast Interview

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RW: I am Oxfam GB’s lead person for labour rights in global supply chains. My role is to identify and disseminate good practice, through advocacy and advice work with companies.

Something like 90% of the world’s jobs are in the private sector, so as an organisation committed to tackling poverty and suffering, including in the workplace, Oxfam must engage with business.

Public campaigns such as Oxfam’s Behind the Brands (which aims to drive a ‘race to the top’ in the food and beverage industry) get a message out in ways that compel a response and brings companies to the table, somewhat irritated but nevertheless willing to listen. That opens up the space for a different type of engagement which is where my role comes in: outlining good practice from an Oxfam perspective, criticising business practices, hearing other perspectives, understanding barriers to change and highlighting tools and approaches that could help.

This year I have been involved in three projects that have sat somewhere between ‘campaigning against’ companies at one end of a spectrum of approaches, and ‘collaborating with’ at the other end. They have resulted in three reports being published in three months: Labour Rights in Unilever’s Supply Chain: from compliance towards good practice, with Unilever; Understanding Wage Issues in the Tea Industry, with Ethical Tea Partnership and Exploring the Links between International Business and Poverty Redu…: Bouquets and Beans from Kenya, with IPL.

All three projects have tackled problems with deep root causes, which even powerful companies cannot solve alone. They need the combined influence of competitors, suppliers, civil society organizations and governments to find solutions. That’s not comfortable territory for companies or NGOs, but Oxfam is learning all the time what works and what doesn’t in this arena. And the UN Guiding Principles provide a timely framework for the dialogues.

BFP: What is the best part about your job?

RW:The best parts of the job are the teamwork that comes from working with knowledgeable passionate people, and the feedback I sometimes get when I’ve been involved in something that has made a difference. For instance, in response to our labour study, the CEO of Unilever made a range of commitments, for instance to improve grievance mechanisms, minimise the use of temporary contracts and conduct a ‘sustainable living review’ in 180 countries. During the study, some workers also thanked the Oxfam research team whom they credited for the two wage rises they got in quick succession.

And a recent email from Ethical Tea Partnership said that, following publication of our tea wages report that they are ‘now getting calls and emails from people within the industry and retail sectors who are impressed with what we have done and want to know how they can help implement the recommendations.’ This creates the momentum to improve the livelihoods of thousands of tea pickers in countries such as Malawi.

BFP: What have been your greatest challenges?

RW: Particular challenges I have faced recently in my work include:

  • How to address issues in ways which challenges the company, while developing a level of trust with those individuals seeking to bring about changes in policies and practices ‘from within’. Another person has called this ‘being hard on the issue but soft on the individual’.
  • How to get sensitive findings into the public domain in a way which is transparent and drives wider change, but does not penalise companies who are prepared to ‘raise their heads above the parapet’. That would deter others and we want more companies to face up to difficult issues.

BFP: How have you overcome these challenges? / What advice, would you give to others?

RW: Relationship management, negotiation skills, knowing when to hold out on a point of principle and when to seek common ground. The fact that I have commercial awareness as well as knowledge of development and human rights – I did a procurement qualification and was an ethical purchasing manager for a spell. Thinking hard about how to communicate something – will a graphic or story speak louder than words or stats? what is the development case and the business case? what will a company’s objections be to an ask and what is Oxfam’s push back? Talking to colleagues and senior managers to sense-check the judgements I make.

BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?

RW: I joined Oxfam 26 years ago this week, with an English degree and six years’ experience organising art exhibitions; scarcely the most obvious route into an international development organization, but a perfectly good one. I am still grateful to the recruitment panel for looking beyond the specifics of my cv to the potential they saw.

When I look at what the younger members of my team have in common, this includes a lot of personal drive, a degree in a broadly relevant subject, time living in a developing country, a spell as a volunteer, and a willingness to support others as well as act on their own initiative, and a desire for a steep learning curve in their own knowledge and competence. Oh and modest salary ambitions of course.

BFP: Finally; what do you hope to get out of being part of the BFP community?

RW: I see the Business Fights Poverty website as a kind of ‘professional community’ that complements Linked-In. BFP is a place where research and initiatives can be shared with others, with a fair chance of a thoughtful response. It is a common space for people, whether employed by companies, NGOs or governments who are essentially like minded, to share effective or innovative ways for business to fight poverty.

Editor’s Note:

Thank you to Rachel Wilshaw for taking the time to do this interview.

We’re always looking out for members to feature. Help us by taking two-minutes to update your profile, or by nominating someone for Business Fights Poverty Member of the Week.

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