Back in 1997, I wrote a front-page story for the New York Times about a Nike shoe plant in Vietnam where workers were forced to work sixty-five-hour weeks for $10 a week and where many employees were exposed to carcinogens that exceeded local legal standards by 177 times. Around that time, I also wrote about 15-year-old apparel workers in Honduras who worked seventy-five-hour weeks for $0.31 an hour for a company that made clothing for Walmart and other chains.

Digging into the details of how large, hugely successful corporations exploited cheap labor made quite an impression on me. Ever since, I’ve kept a close eye on the on-again, off-again efforts to end sweatshop conditions while also following the discussions and debates about what are the best strategies to stop workplace abuses—an effort made harder by corporations’ never-ending desire to minimize their costs and their workers’ power, whether at home or abroad. In recent years, these efforts to end abuses and lift workers have in ways grown more difficult, one reason being that many corporations have moved more and more of their production to countries, such as Bangladesh and Honduras, where wages are low and worker protections are weak.

Year after year, many companies have maintained that they work diligently to improve conditions for their workers, often through such methods as suggestion boxes and hiring monitors to inspect their factories. But those efforts have often fallen flat. Indeed, labor unions and other worker advocates say those methods usually do little to help workers—for example, they point to the utter failure of factory monitoring efforts before the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing 1,133 people.

So I was of course interested when the U.S. Department of Labor told me it was issuing a report that seeks to highlight what the department says is a pivotal strategy for improving working conditions and curbing workplace abuses. That strategy is to give workers an effective voice at their jobs, so that they can raise concerns about such matters as fair pay, working conditions, training, workplace safety, and the pace of work. The newly released report, Worker Voice: What It Is, What It Is Not, and Why It Matters, says it aims “to re-center the definition—and the debate—on what constitutes legitimate worker voice as a means to fully realize freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.”

In a statement that I (and no doubt many others) agree with, the report says, “democratic trade unions and collective bargaining” make for the best examples of “effective worker voice.” The report then goes on to say that in many places and industries, there are huge and sometimes insurmountable obstacles to forming unions, whether for farm workers in the United States or apparel workers in Bangladesh or Pakistan or domestic workers nearly anywhere in the world. The report—whose principal authors are Mark Anner and Matthew-Fischer Daly, both of Penn State University—devotes dozens of pages to explaining how best to assure an effective voice for workers, through not just labor unions, but other ways as well.

Just What Is Effective Worker Voice?

The Worker Voice report first seeks to explain what people mean when they talk of “worker voice,” and then it discusses what components are needed to ensure that worker voice is effective, rather than futile, feeble, or fake. Too often, the report says, what is labeled as worker voice is “fake” in that it is controlled by management and not a true, independent voice of workers. The report also highlights several examples where worker voice has proved unusually effective, among them the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, which has improved conditions for 30,000 farm workers, and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which has strengthened safety protections for more than two million Bangladeshi apparel workers.

Too often, what is labeled as worker voice is “fake” in that it is controlled by management and not a true, independent voice of workers.

The report says effective worker voice is all the more important in today’s fast-changing times, when so many jobs are precarious and so many workers are in vulnerable situations:

The need for a clear definition of the term is important and timely, especially in today’s fragmented global economy where global supply chains, informality, non-standard work, undocumented migrant workers, child labor, and under-regulated agricultural production are increasingly the norm. How should “voice” be exercised by a garment worker in Bangladesh who is employed by a local factory but with terms and conditions of employment shaped by the purchasing practices of global brands headquartered on other continents? Where is voice for domestic workers laboring alone in private homes and unprotected by domestic legislation? How should workers in Myanmar, who face arrest and possible torture and killing by a brutal military regime, express their desires and exercise their rights for decent work?

Thea Lee, the Department of Labor’s deputy undersecretary for international affairs, sees the worker voice report as both an educational tool and an organizing tool. “We commissioned the report,” she said, “precisely because there are so many versions of inadequate worker voice or social audits or corporate-driven compliance programs. We really wanted to have a well-researched, well-articulated framework with clear examples that would be of real value to corporations, to government, to unions and to organizers who are trying to create something better for workers.

The report is valuable because many people fail to understand what worker voice means and because employers often say their workers have an effective voice on the job even when their workers are too scared to speak up, often because they fear retaliation for criticizing or protesting their pay or working conditions.

In a key paragraph, the report seeks to explain what makes for effective worker voice:

This report delves into these questions by providing a definition of worker voice based on six core and interacting components: elect, represent, include, protect, enable, and empower. Effective worker voice institutions and mechanisms are built upon democratic workers’ organizations that are independent of the state and employers. Collective, rather than individual, organizations are the most effective, as are organizations whose members and leaders reflect the diversity of their sectors and societies. Workers participating in such organizations and processes should be fully protected from dismissal, deportation, and other forms of harm, including to their physical safety. Finally, workers should be fully enabled—by having the time, space, information, and training—to participate, and they should be empowered to use leverage to achieve their demands.

In an interview, Anner, the report’s co-author, said, “There is a need to come up with a clear definition of worker voice so that people know what a real, robust mechanism would look like and what they should aspire to.”

Enforceable Brand Agreements: An Effective Model

Lee discussed what makes the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—which got its start fighting for tomato workers in Florida—one of the best examples of effective worker voice in the nonunion context. The Immokalee coalition has created the Fair Food Program, which sets standards for how farmworkers are to be treated, and the Fair Food Standards Council, a nonprofit that enforces those standards, often through elaborate investigations of working conditions and workplace abuses. Many prominent food companies have joined the Fair Food Standards Council, which is a type of enforceable brand agreement (EBA), a model that the report repeatedly praises.

Discussing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Lee—who had once been a top economist at the AFL-CIO—told me:

It’s in southern Florida in agriculture, where you can’t just say, “Form a union,” because there are legal obstacles. The Coalition was really able to make something out of nothing. They were able to leverage the power of the big buyers, like Taco Bell, Whole Foods and McDonald’s in the purchase of tomatoes to create a framework where the growers on the bottom of the supply chain need to be responsive and follow the fair food standards.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers succeeded in pressuring several well-known companies into joining its enforceable brand agreement, a model that requires companies to halt purchases or take other action against suppliers that violate a code of conduct. “Enforceable brand agreements,” Lee said, “are a very valuable framework, particularly in areas where it isn’t so easy to organize a union.”

For a decade, the workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti who formed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers struggled unsuccessfully through hunger strikes and long marches to get tomato growers in Florida to bargain collectively. Frustrated, they decided to take a new approach to combat the dismal conditions many tomato workers faced, which included low pay, frequent off-the-clock work, and sexual harassment by crew leaders. Other problems included child labor and even forced labor.

As part of its new approach, the coalition used a boycott and protest marches to persuade Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King to join the Fair Food Standards Council and require their tomato growers to comply with the Fair Food Code. All told, fourteen companies, including Whole Foods, Walmart, and Trader Joe’s, have signed onto the effort, and the Immokalee coalition is fighting to get Wendy’s to join, too. The Fair Food Code prohibits off-the-clock work, child labor, and sexual harassment and requires giving the workers regular breaks, clean water, shade tents, and periodic trainings to teach workers about their rights. When workers report violations—which they can do through an anonymous hotline—their complaints are quickly investigated and, if corroborated, the independent investigators seek quick remediation. If a grower refuses to fix the problem, for instance, by refusing to fire a crew leader who sexually harassed workers, the participating brands are required to stop buying tomatoes from that grower. In that way, McDonald’s, Walmart, and the other companies have become enforcers of an effort aimed at ensuring fair treatment for workers. The Fair Food Program has raised pay and eliminated forced labor, child labor, and gender-based violence for approximately 30,000 farm workers.

In discussing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other efforts, the Worker Voice report emphasizes that workers feel encouraged and empowered to speak up when they don’t fear retaliation and when independent investigators who aren’t dominated by employers investigate their complaints.

The report also has high praise for the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was created when labor unions in Bangladesh joined forces with unions and workers’ rights groups from Western countries after two horrific factory disasters in Bangladesh: the Rana Plaza factory building collapse that killed 1,133 in 2013, and the Tazreen factory fire that killed 117 workers in 2012—some of whom died leaping from windows, just as happened in the 1911 Triangle fire.

The Bangladesh Accord is a legally binding agreement that aims to create a safe and healthy apparel industry. It covers 1,600 Bangladeshi garment factories with more than 2 million workers, nearly two-thirds of the country’s apparel workforce. The Accord’s signatories include global brands and retailers, such as H&M and Benetton, and the IndustriALL Global Union, UNI Global Union, and eight Bangladeshi unions.

A big factor that pushed global brands and labor unions to create the accord was the glaring failure of corporate social responsibility programs in identifying and fixing the safety problems at the Tazreen factory and Rana Plaza. Moreover, at the time of the fire, the Bangladeshi government was so eager to attract foreign investment and faced so much pressure from the business community that it wasn’t at all rigorous in inspecting factories—something that the labor groups that pushed to create the accord wanted to correct by ensuring there would be rigorous inspections. In its first five years, the accord’s inspection teams conducted more than 25,000 safety inspections and remedied 97,235 high-risk fire, structural, and electrical safety violations. The program shut down ninety-six factories for failing to carry out required safety renovations. The program also provided in-depth safety and health training to workers in 846 factories and investigated and resolved 183 worker complaints.

The Worker Voice report said the most effective worker voice efforts “provide much-needed training for workers.” It added:

Through the Bangladesh Accord, 1.8 million workers have been informed about essential workplace safety principles and practices. If workers are not trained how to identify safety issues, even protected workers will not be able to effectively speak up and assist in remediating concerns.

The accord’s steering committee includes three union representatives and three corporate representatives. Importantly, the accord gives workers a role in safety inspections, with union delegates allowed to accompany safety engineers during factory inspections. The report detailed why the accord was successful in encouraging workers to step forward and speak out:

The Accord’s complaint mechanism established a trustworthy platform for workers to confidentially express health and safety concerns, safeguarding their rights to protection and the refusal of unsafe work… By protecting the workers from any form of retaliation upon filing complaints, the mechanism created a genuine level playing field between the factory workers and factory owners.

The report vigorously criticized corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, saying CSR factory monitors frequently serve corporate interests and often aren’t rigorous enough. In a slap at those programs, the report states:

The enforceable nature of EBAs distinguishes them from voluntary corporate social responsibility programs (CSR) and helped to explain why CSR programs failed to protect against the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, whereas the Bangladesh Accord was able to identify and remediate 97,235 high-risk fire, structural, and electrical safety violations.

The report repeatedly stressed that a central difference between the accord and earlier CSR efforts was that the accord is a binding, enforceable contract that requires global brands to stop sourcing apparel from factories that fail to fix health and safety problems uncovered by the accord’s investigators.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a factory monitoring group sponsored by 185 universities, said,

The fundamental problem with corporate social responsibility programs from a practical standpoint is that they are not binding on the brands. They make voluntary commitments, and they fulfill them or not as they see fit. There is a built-in conflict of interest between upholding labor rights and the brands’ economic priorities when their whole global economic posture is about reducing production costs. That’s in conflict with any promise you make on worker rights. It costs more to produce under good conditions than under bad conditions. If labor rights commitments are not built in, then any profit-making entity will prioritize profit over fulfilling those commitments.

This unfortunately appears to be the case in the sugar-cane industry in the Indian state of Maharashtra—the focus of a recent front-page New York Times investigative article—in which many female workers were ensnared by debt year after year and pressured into child marriages and unnecessary hysterectomies. The article notes that Coca-Cola and a major PepsiCo franchisee buy sugar from Maharashtra and that those companies say they hold their suppliers to strict standards on labor rights. But the article says Coca-Cola and PepsiCo rarely monitor thousands of sugar farms in their supply chains. In the article, an executive with one Maharastra sugar supplier reports that soda-company representatives are scrupulous in asking about sugar quality and production efficiency, but almost never ask about labor issues in the fields.

IndustryArc, a company that does market research about global supply chains, estimates that businesses spend around $25 billion a year worldwide on CSR programs. Lee asserted that that’s a waste of money—money that could be used to improve pay and working conditions. Lee said:

We’re telling people to stop wasting money on these third-party audits. Stop self-auditing when you don’t have workers involved in every part of the process. There’s starting to be a consensus about the uselessness of voluntary corporate social responsibility measures. For a long time, companies would say, “We have a corporate code of conduct, and everything is fine. We self-certified ourselves to be fair trade this or that.” Then, especially after Rana Plaza, there was a realization that these things aren’t worth the time or money. The Rana Plaza building was certified by corporations’ social auditors just days before it collapsed to the ground. That social audit was useless.

The report praised several other enforceable brand agreements, including one in Lesotho. Female workers in that country’s garment industry were facing extensive sexual harassment and gender-based violence from supervisors and coworkers. Not only that, the women often faced retaliation when they reported those abuses through company-run grievance mechanisms.

“If labor rights commitments are not built in, then any profit-making entity will prioritize profit over fulfilling those commitments.”

Under pressure from workers rights’ groups, two global brands that source from Lesotho—Levi Strauss, and the Children’s Place—signed a breakthrough agreement. Their main supplier there, Nien Hsing Textile, also signed agreements with five Lesotho-based trade unions, the Worker Rights Consortium, and the Solidarity Center, an international workers rights group affiliated with the AFL–CIO. Covering 10,000 of Lesotho’s 50,000 garment workers, the agreements address the problems of harassment and violence that workers face while on the job. The agreements created a nonprofit investigative body, Workers’ Rights Watch, which receives and investigates complaints from workers at five Nien Hsing factories. Upon confirming abuses, it has the power to issue findings and order companies to fix problems, for instance, by firing a harasser.

The Solidarity Center hailed the Lesotho Agreements as “the first instance” worldwide “in which brands and their suppliers have entered into enforceable agreements with worker representatives to stop gender-based violence and harassment and protect workers.”

The Lesotho Agreements established strong protections for freedom of association and a confidential, toll-free information line run by a women’s group. The agreements required apparel producers to stop using short-term contracts that gave supervisors considerable power to decide whether to keep or fire female workers, making them vulnerable to abuse and scared to complain.

The Worker Voice report noted that the U.S. Department of Labor had praised the Lesotho Agreements because they “condition doing business with the supplier on the brands’ acceptance of a worker-led program to eliminate sexual harassment and abuse.”

The report praised a second effort to combat gender-based violence and harassment, this one in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state in India. There, a supervisor murdered a Dalit worker, Jeyasre Kathiravel, and afterwards, coworkers spoke up about a culture of gender-based intimidation and violence. Pressured by Indian labor unions and Western workers’ rights groups, two global brands, H&M and PVH (the parent of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands), and Eastman Exports, an Indian apparel supplier that supplies them, signed a binding agreement with the Tamil Nadu Textile Union and two international labor groups, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance.

The resulting Dindigul Agreement called for cracking down on gender-based violence and harassment, developing a culture of respect and eradicating discrimination based on gender, caste, and migration status. The agreement encourages collective action against gender-based violence through independent grievance procedures and freedom of association. Under the agreement, H&M and PVH are required to take steps to impose business consequences on Eastern Exports if it violates the agreement.

According to the Dindigul Agreement’s first progress report, apparel workers in Tamil Nadu raised 185 grievances, with women workers reporting 170 of them. Of these grievances, 182 were resolved, with 90 percent resolved within a week. The progress report said, “The agreement improved worker-management rapport and boosted the factory’s productivity.”

Looking ahead, the Worker Voice report pointed to a big challenge that enforceable brand agreements face if they’re to succeed and grow. “It is necessary for brands to keep and increase production in factories covered by enforceable brand agreements and not shift production to non-covered factories,” the report said.

The report concluded that enforceable brand agreements succeed because they “enabled a protected environment for workers to express their collective voice” and were “backed by empowering and meaningful repercussions for disregarding their concerns, such as the millions of dollars paid by brands that failed to meet the terms of the Bangladesh Accord.”

Workers’ rights advocates say they wish that there were far more enforceable brand agreements. Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium said it isn’t easy to persuade global brands to sign them. “You need a lot of leverage because brands are extremely reluctant to sign these agreements because they know what these agreements mean,” he said. “Brands view labor rights promises as a way to address reputational risks. They understand the difference between a binding commitment and a non-binding promise. They’re very reluctant to sign these agreements because they know there will be costs, and they know these agreements will establish a precedent.”

Nova said these agreements are forged “using a moment of massive public pressure”—such as the widespread anger after the Rana Plaza collapse or after the Tamil Nadu factory murder. “We need to get that leverage at a much broader scale,” he added.

Worker Voice in Trade Agreements

Anner, the Worker Voice report’s coauthor, said one of the most remarkable advances for worker voice has come in Mexico. He criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because it didn’t have enforceable provisions to protect freedom of association for workers in Mexico. Not only did Mexico long have many official unions that had pro-corporate protection contracts, but Mexico long made it difficult for workers to select independent, democratic unions that were not allied with management. Many U.S. labor leaders complained that as a result of NAFTA’s failure to protect and promote independent unions, Mexican workers too often received poor wages, with those poor wages often undercutting U.S. workers’ wages and jobs. Anner lauded the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which entered into force in 2020, because it addressed the weakness of NAFTA’s labor provisions.

Under USMCA’s Facility-Specific Rapid Response Labor Mechanism, Mexican workers or unions can anonymously report grievances to the United States through a petition inbox. A petition might involve, for instance, workers’ allegations that a company and its union leaders cheated to ensure ratification of a contract that workers disliked. After receiving such a petition, a U.S. Government Interagency Labor Committee has thirty days to review it to determine whether there is “sufficient, credible evidence of a denial of rights.” The U.S. government can then request that Mexico investigate the alleged denial of freedom of association and/or collective bargaining rights. Once such a request for review is filed, Mexico has ten days to say whether it intends to conduct a review. If Mexico determines there has been a denial of rights, it has forty-five days from when the review was requested to seek to fix the problem. If Mexico fails to remediate the problem, then the United States, as the complaining government, can request a review by an international panel of experts. If the panel determines there has been a denial of rights, then the U.S. can impose remedies that can include, for instance, penalties on goods manufactured by the factory that was found to have denied workers’ rights. Employers or unions that retaliate against workers for exercising their rights or filing a petition can face complaints and sanctions.

USMCA’s impact in strengthening worker voice in Mexico is already apparent. In 1995, General Motors opened a plant in Silao, Mexico, that now makes Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks. For decades, the plant had a corporate-friendly protection union that negotiated contracts that many workers were unhappy about. In 2019, Mexico passed a law that gave all workers the opportunity to vote whether to reject or approve the collective bargaining agreements that were in force at their workplaces, agreements that had often been negotiated by protection unions. In 2021, the Silao workers began voting on their contract with GM, but several irregularities were documented, including the destruction of ballots. Mexico’s secretary of labor investigated and suspended the vote. The United States filed a complaint under USMCA, and the Mexican government reviewed the case and, after discussions with the U.S., ordered a new vote. Not only did the GM workers vote down the contract, but in 2022, 78 percent of the 5,389 Silao workers who cast ballots voted to be represented by a new independent union. That union soon won the workers an 8.5 percent raise, larger bonuses, more paid holidays, and a protocol for responding to sexual harassment.

Anner said the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism is a big success. “There were old, corrupt, corporate unions,” he said. “The independent unions did everything to fight the good fight, but they too often were blocked. But with the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism, many workers have been able to get a new union and a new collective bargaining agreement. These new mechanisms allow bottom-up voice to flourish.”

Lee said that USMCA—with its dispute resolution mechanism, its protections for freedom of association and its firm deadlines for investigation and remediation—“has without a doubt the strongest labor chapter of any trade agreement anywhere in world history.”

Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Comes of Age

In my nineteen years covering labor for the New York Times, I often wrote about factory workers being mistreated and about companies boasting that they had adopted corporate social responsibility programs to ferret out and fix any abuses. But far too many times, it became clear that those corporate-sponsored efforts not only failed to detect obvious problems inside factories, but also failed to follow through to fix the problems that they had found.

The corporate-sponsored monitors usually interviewed workers inside factories, and that often made workers scared to talk freely—they worried that factory managers would see them talking to the inspectors. Many workers also feared that the investigators wouldn’t keep their names confidential. Workers often complained that the monitors interviewed too few workers at their factory, making many workers feel that they were overlooked and had little voice. (In sharp contrast, the Immokalee Fair Food Standards Council interviews more than half the covered farm workers each year to ask about how they are treated. That gives them a sense of voice and empowerment.)

Very unfortunately, for many CSR inspections, managers were tipped off in advance on when the inspections would take place, enabling them, for instance, to unlock exits they usually kept locked or to tell child laborers not to report to work that day. In Bangladesh, some factory inspectors hired by Western brands didn’t even bother to check or report whether factories had fire escapes, saying that was the responsibility of local building inspectors.

In light of all this, it was hard not to grow skeptical about corporate social responsibility programs, especially after Tazreen and Rana Plaza. In the years after those disasters, a movement emerged that called itself Worker-Driven Social Responsibility, coalescing around the idea that worker groups, not corporations, should be in charge of factory and farm inspection programs, or should at least have a strong say alongside employers in shaping and overseeing those programs.

I immediately thought that worker-driven social responsibility was an idea whose time had come. Championed by Greg Asbed, one of the founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, worker-driven social responsibility would in theory ensure more thorough inspections, more rigorous follow through, and more listening to the voice of workers. It also meant greater protection of workers’ anonymity and less threat of retaliation.

The Fair Food Standards Council, the Bangladesh Accord, the Lesotho Agreements, and the Dindigul Agreement are all examples of worker-driven social responsibility—programs created in response to pressure from workers and in which workers have a major say. I remember what one champion of worker-driven social responsibility told me: “We want to go from a culture of audit-and-ignore to a culture of inspect-and-remedy,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, director of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European-wide anti-sweatshop group.

The Department of Labor’s new Worker Voice report reaches the same logical conclusion that the worker-driven social responsibility movement has trumpeted, and an important conclusion it is: If you want to improve working conditions and end workplace abuses, if you are sincere about ensuring workers’ health and safety, not only is it essential to listen to workers’ voices, but it is vital to give workers a strong voice in shaping and running any program that aims to assure fair and safe treatment of workers.