US fashion firm VF Corporation has, for several years, been on a mission to make its supply chain operations more sustainable and ethical. The group, which owns and operates brands such as Dickies, Vans, The North Face, Timberland, Icebreaker and Supreme, said in 2021 it had made significant efforts to promote dignity, social dialogue and equal opportunities across its supply chain, and had trained over 375 of its leaders to see their own unconscious biases and be more inclusive. Her
Here, we talk to VF Corporation’s senior manager of global workers rights Maria Lassen about what the business is doing to support its supply chain workers, and why ensuring workers have ethical conditions is important for its business. Inside Retail: Firstly, can you tell me about how VF is tackling responsible recruitment? Maria Lassen: Upholding human rights, particularly worker rights, is a core priority at VF. In 2019, a VF impact assessment of our global value chain helped us identify priority salient human rights issues for our operations and supply chain, including responsible recruitment and migrant workers. Responsible recruitment is increasingly a critical issue for many industries with global supply chains, including the garment and footwear industry, as migratory movements continue to expand rapidly. At VF, we employ the principles for responsible recruitment offered by the International Labour Organisation, which are widely accepted throughout the industry and we have publicly committed to eradicating forced labour practices – for instance that no worker pays for their job in the VF supply chain by 2026. And, recognising we can only address problems we can see, we’re expanding our traceability and transparency efforts to dig deeper into our extended supply chain, and sharing our findings with key stakeholders. In 2021, we launched the ‘Your Voice Matters’ pilot program at 14 supplier facilities across our extended supply chain, as we aim to employ greater protection for migrant workers in contracted facilities. Leveraging our robust human rights program and Worker Rights Social Impact Model, the pilot sought to improve employment practices and workplace dialogue for more than 5,000 facility employees, of which over 90 per cent were identified as migrant workers in 2021. IR: Can you tell me about the process of getting feedback from the migrant workers in VF’s supply chain, and how the business then uses that to make changes? ML: Addressing recruitment issues across the global supply chain requires a methodical approach, as hidden costs may appear throughout the job seeker’s journey, from selection interviews and document processing in the origin country to labour standards and living conditions in the host country. To ensure a comprehensive strategy and elevate the level of knowledge across our associates, VF has partnered with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to enhance responsible recruitment policies and implement leading due diligence procedures to eliminate worker vulnerabilities during the migration process. To that end, and through our ‘Your Voice Matters’ program, we partnered with two tech companies to apply anonymous worker surveys and a digital training platform that includes films, quizzes and other tools to increase worker understanding and measure knowledge retention to identify gaps and opportunities. By developing programs that implement worker training, measure worker comprehension, and support the activation of knowledge gained, VF can then leverage data-driven insights to drive long-term impacts for people across the globe. Our program covers three key focus areas and engages both management and workers – employment practices, which includes foreign contract worker protection and recruitment agency responsibilities; workplace policies, which focus on worker visa permits and remediating risks in the workplace; and workplace dialogue, which covers facility grievance systems and the importance of migrant worker representation in worker committees. By incorporating monitoring and evaluation mechanisms into facility training and directly engaging with workers in their native language, we are able to continuously improve the facilitation of dialogue and engagement, and to then share aggregated data insights with the facility management to drive improvement. With the use of different digital tools, we collect triangulated data that allows for more informed and targeted training as well. The dialogue we can then have with the suppliers is much more informed, and together, we can help tailor improvements to where it is most needed. IR: What are the dangers to business supply chains that come from ignoring these issues? ML: It is widely recognised that unethical recruitment practices, including recruitment fees and related costs charged to migrant workers, along with deceptive recruitment practices, may be enablers of forced labour. Migrant workers are highly susceptible to the negative impacts of these recruitment fees and costs. An expansive multi-tiered supply chain that spans across the globe identifying and addressing recruitment issues of migrant workers in global supply chains requires companies to take a diligent approach to supply chain management. However, there is a high chance of neglecting the potential risk to migrant workers in global supply chains if we do not work more in-depth in understanding the migrant worker’s journey. For example, in Jordan the apparel industry employs thousands of female migrant workers from Bangladesh every year, and we work closely with the suppliers there to understand how they apply responsible recruitment practices, beginning with the official government recruitment agency in Bangladesh. Moving beyond that starting point can be very difficult, but we are planning to expand our scope of work to gain more insights into the Bangladeshi women’s journey by engaging in dialogue to understand from them how we can help improve their quality of life during their employment away from home. We also engage with local stakeholders to understand if educational services or other community activities could be an opportunity for these women to increase their skills and knowledge. The migrant worker’s journey can be very complex – from departure in their home country, during employment and through to a safe return home, recruitment practices are varied and can often be challenging. It is becoming more and more urgent for companies to apply a robust due diligence process and responsibly address key findings. With today’s call for supply chain transparency by external stakeholders and the need to start listening to the right-holders, the people in our supply chains, businesses need to at least understand where migrant workers are employed in their supply chain.