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BCI Task Force ‘Renews’ Focus on Forced Labor

A Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) Task Force on Forced Labor and Decent Work formed in April to review the current Better Cotton Standard System globally, has issued findings and made recommendations on ways to improve the group’s mission and systems.

The overall findings of the task force concluded that in comparison to environmental issues such as soil health and pesticides, decent work–the umbrella under which issues of forced labor would be identified–has received a comparatively lower degree of focus and investment across the BCI program and Better Cotton Standard System (BCSS).

While it explicitly cites the promotion of decent work as one of its core objectives, the level of attention and investment so far has been insufficient, BCI said.

“BCI now has an opportunity–with the right level of commitment and resourcing–to renew its focus on the more than 1.5 million workers at the foundation of the Better Cotton system, to give these workers a stronger voice and to pioneer innovative, worker-focused approaches to promote decent work in cotton fields,” it said. “Through leveraging its existing global network and forging new, stronger partnerships with trade unions, civil society and grassroots organizations, BCI has the potential to drive systemic change in labor conditions and decent work in cotton production.”

BCI said strengthening decent work capabilities and systems will also provide greater assurance to brands, retailers and other stakeholders that farmers growing Better Cotton are following BCI’s stated principles on forced labor and decent work. The Task Force noted, however, that before BCI can achieve these aims, it must address significant existing gaps in awareness, competencies and processes related to decent work. These limitations extend across the BCI organization, governance structure and partner network, the group said.

“In the view of the task force, they have resulted in organizational blindness to important risks and realities related to forced labor and likely other decent work issues,” BCI said. “The strategic recommendations developed by the task force provide a roadmap for BCI to address these gaps and strengthen its decent work capability across the BCI system. The approach is grounded in international human rights standards, understanding inequalities, and addressing discriminatory practices.”

The recommendations include an overall “rebalancing” of the BCI network on decent work issues through a comprehensive, rights-based approach to building decent work awareness throughout BCI and its partners, down to the field level, as well as strengthening internal decent work expertise in leadership, including dedicated decent work expertise within the BCI secretariat and council.

In addition, the task force recommended defining the necessary “enabling environment” for BCI operations by developing a standardized process and criteria to assess whether the necessary environment exists for its standard to be implemented effectively, and acknowledging that it is impossible to operate responsibly in contexts of state-imposed forced labor. A strong conclusion is that BCI cannot operate in regions where there is credible evidence of state-imposed forced labor.

The task force also said BCI should adopt a risk-based approach that will help target efforts and ensure that capacity building and mitigation strategies respond to specific forced labor risks at a local level. BCI should also introduce significant innovations in assurance, moving away from the traditional audit model in relation to decent work and develop dedicated decent work-focused monitoring.

Earlier this month, BCI announced plans to cease all field-level activities in the the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), including capacity building and data monitoring and reporting. In March, BCI suspended licensing and assurance activities in the region, and as a result, there is no new licensed Better Cotton coming from the region. Until circumstances change, BCI said it will focus efforts in China in the eastern provinces of Hubei, Hebei, Shandong and Gansu, where it has existing programs.

The task force was comprised of 12 experts representing civil society, retailers and brands, and ethical supply chain consultancies. It worked virtually for six months to review current BCI systems, discuss key issues and gaps, and develop proposed recommendations. The process included extensive consultations with a wider group of retailers and brands, field-level implementing partners and worker-focused organizations.

“It has been a privilege for BCI to be able to work with a world-class group of independent experts,” BI CEO Alan McClay said. “Their knowledge and experience have enabled us to build a robust foundation on which we shall rebalance our activities with a stronger focus on decent work and forced labor.”

The BCI council and management team are reviewing the report and will carefully consider the task force’s findings and recommendations through the lens of BCI’s 2030 strategy. They will prepare a detailed response to the recommendations, which will be shared in January.

BCI said it recognizes that strengthening its decent work program will be a multi-year process and will require additional resources and funding. In the short-term, it will focus on strengthening its forced labor capabilities through capacity building for staff, implementing partners and third-party verifiers, enhancing due diligence for selecting and retaining implementing partners, and revising assurance processes to better identify and mitigate forced labor risks.

For 2021, BCI is also exploring opportunities to pilot a more comprehensive set of decent work activities, including a detailed forced labor risk assessment and civil society engagement tactics, in one or two high-priority regions.

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