MSI Integrity Seeking Summer 2022 Legal and Policy Fellows

Protester holds up a sign that reads "Economic Justice" during a defund police rally in St. Paul, MN on December 12th, 2020. (Chad Davis / Flickr)

Law and graduate students, do you want hands-on experience working on system-shifting research and advocacy? You’re in luck: MSI Integrity’s Summer Fellowship program is back! Read about previous fellows’ experiences here and here.

Seeking Legal and Policy Fellows

We’re seeking Legal and Policy Fellows to join our team during the Summer of 2022 to advance the first project of our Beyond Corporations work: Shifting Power: Assessing Worker- and Community-Centric Alternatives to Conventional Corporations. Shifting Power is a user-friendly and visually appealing online platform that will explore and evaluate a range of different policies, reforms, and structural features of businesses that enable worker ownership and control in the decision-making of those businesses. Fellows will assist the organization with its work and develop a workplan and central project mutually agreed between the Fellow and MSI Integrity.

Examples might include analyzing how alternative corporate governance and ownership structures shift power to workers and communities, supporting targeted dissemination of Shifting Power by engaging in outreach with labor and corporate accountability audiences, and writing short publications and materials suitable for those audiences. We hope to find individuals who share our passion for economic justice and who are interested in pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo as it relates to corporate power and economic inequality.


The Fellowships are full-time (ordinarily 36-40 hours per week, however during COVID we have been enabling our team to reduce to a 32-hour work week given the additional stresses of the period—see our COVID workplace policies) and temporary (minimum 10 weeks). Our approach to working with summer fellows is to embrace you as full members of our team for the time you are working with us. This means attending weekly staff meetings, engaging in cross-organizational issues that might arise, being able to join working groups of interest to you and occasionally participating in our not-too-awkward remote zoom social hangs. MSI Integrity’s fellowship program will be structured to provide a supportive and engaging environment. Fellows will work in close collaboration with supervising MSI Integrity staff and will receive feedback on their work product during regular check-in meetings with supervisors. We will support Fellows in developing a polished writing sample, if desired.

While we anticipate many Fellows will have funding sources from their universities or support organizations, we do not want the lack of funding to prevent interested candidates from applying. Applicants may indicate in their application if they are unable to secure funding from their universities or other sources, and we will work with such candidates to try to find financial support and assess if we can provide a small stipend.

Eligibility and Where to Apply

In order to be eligible for the Legal Fellowship, applicants must have completed at least their first year of law school by the summer. For the Policy Fellowship, applicants enrolled in any graduate university degree program will be considered, although projects will be matched relevant to skill level.

Do you want to shift power? See the full job description and learn how to apply on our Employment page.

Not Fit-For-Purpose Summary Report Now Available in Spanish

Not Fit For Purpose Spanish Translation

The summary version of MSI Integrity’s 2020 report, Not Fit-For-Purpose: The Grand Experiment of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives in Corporate Accountability, Human Rights and Global Governance, is now available in Spanish translation.

Earlier this year, MSI Integrity was approached by the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network about translating sections of Not Fit-For-Purpose to support their organizing of Spanish-speaking workers. WSR Network is composed of worker organizations, allies, and technical advisors working to provide support and resources for worker-led efforts to replicate the WSR model. As MSI Integrity’s report highlights, the model is one effective alternative to multi-stakeholderism because, unlike MSIs, WSR initiatives center workers in the design and implementation of its programs and contractually obligate brands to follow human rights and labor standards.

Not Fit-For-Purpose pointed to the limitations of the MSI model, which has demonstrably failed to protect human rights and hold guilty corporations accountable for their crimes against people and the planet. The staff at MSI Integrity are pleased that WSR Network will be using the translated report to raise awareness among Spanish-speaking workers about its findings, including the viability of alternative solutions like the WSR model. It is pertinent that the key messages of the report are made accessible to the very workers in supply chains that MSIs purport to benefit.

According to WSR Network, “To raise awareness around the failures of MSIs means to raise awareness around what real solutions need to look like, to encourage worker-driven models and programs that address these flaws. This translation will serve as an important education tool for workers to best understand the history of MSIs, their flaws, and the road forward towards enforcing human rights.”

While operating with a small staff and on a tight budget, MSI Integrity strives to live up to the values of accessibility and language justice, particularly for the workers and communities implicated in our work. We are hopeful that the translation will help spread the lessons learned about MSIs’ failures and alternative worker- and community-centric solutions to human rights and environmental abuse, including among frontline communities who have the most at stake.

You can download the translated summary report here.

La versión resumida del informe 2020 de MSI Integrity, No apto para su propósito: El Gran Experimento de Iniciativas de Múltiples Partes Interesadas en Responsabilidad Empresarial, Derechos Humanos y Gobernanza Global, ya está disponible en español.

A principios de este año, la Red de Responsabilidad Social Dirigida por Trabajadores (WSR por sus siglas en inglés) contactó a MSI Integrity sobre la traducción de secciones de No apto por su propósito para apoyar sus campañas de organizar a trabajadores de habla hispana. La Red de WSR (WSR Network) está compuesta por organizaciones de trabajadores, aliados y asesores técnicos que trabajan para brindar apoyo y recursos a los esfuerzos dirigidos por los trabajadores para replicar el modelo WSR. Como destaca el informe de MSI Integrity, el modelo es una alternativa eficaz a la MSI porque, a diferencia de la MSI, las iniciativas de WSR centran a los trabajadores en el diseño y la implementación de sus programas y obligan contractualmente a la marcas a cumplir con las normas laborales y de derechos humanos.

No apto para su propósito señaló las limitaciones del modelo MSI, que de manera demostrable no ha logrado proteger los derechos humanos y hacer a las empresas responsables por sus crímenes contra las personas y el planeta. El personal de MSI Integrity está contento que WSR Network utilizare el informe traducido para crear conciencia entre los trabajadores de habla hispana sobre sus hallazgos, incluso la viabilidad de soluciones alternativas como el modelo WSR. Es pertinente que los mensajes clave del informe sean accesibles para los trabajadores de las cadenas de suministro que las MSI pretenden beneficiarse.

Según WSR Network, “Crear conciencia sobre los fracasos de las MSI significa crear conciencia sobre cómo deben verse las soluciones eficaces, para fomentar modelos y programas dirigidos por trabajadores que aborden estos fracasos. Esta traducción va a servir como una herramienta importante para que los trabajadores comprendan mejor la historia de las MSI, sus defectos y el camino hacia la aplicación de los derechos humanos.”

Si bien opera con un personal reducido y con un presupuesto ajustado, MSI Integrity se esfuerza por cumplir con los valores de accesibilidad y justicia lingüística, en particular para los trabajadores y las comunidades implicadas en nuestro trabajo. Somos optimistas respecto de que la traducción ayude a difundir las lecciones aprendidas sobre los fracasos de las MSI y las soluciones alternativas al abuso de los derechos humanos y el medio ambiente que centren los trabajadores y las comunidades, incluso entre las comunidades de primera línea que tiene más en juego.

Puede descargar el informe resumido traducido aquí.

Crafting Our Paid Parental Leave Policy: Supporting Families, Rejecting Oppression

Parental leave baby

This blog is part of MSI Integrity’s broader effort to share publicly its internal effort to construct a more liberatory workplace, which includes developing anti-oppressive, worker-supporting policies and implementing workplace democracy. See our blog on our COVID-19 policies as another example in this series, with more to come in 2021.

Paid parental leave (PPL) is an integral component of dignified employment in the twenty-first century. It is critical to battling patriarchy and gender roles in and outside the workplace and home, and to supporting the fullness of a worker’s life beyond their employment.

PPL is a source of liberation, a rejection of oppression. But tragically, it is severely limited, or more commonly, entirely absent in the United States—unlike almost every single other industrialized country in the world. This absence reinforces class, racial, gender and other inequities as people that don’t have the resources to take off from work without income, pay for childcare and other child-rearing necessities, are left in the lurch. Whereas OECD governments on average offer over four months of paid maternity leave and two months of paid father-specific leave, the US government only mandates three months of unpaid parental leave for organizations and companies with over 50 employees.

Not only is this woefully inadequate for workers at such organizations, but it excludes the 40% of workers in the US who work at organizations with less than 50 staff. It also leaves the door open for employers who do offer PPL to design policies that are premised on sexist assumptions, uphold the gender binary or are oppressive to families that don’t fit neatly within heteronormative boundaries.

Absent robust government-sponsored parental leave, or an otherwise collectively organized system of child-rearing, it is incumbent on US companies and organizations themselves to fill in the gap with policies that support gender equity and workers with different family structures. While some large corporations and private foundations have been able to reach into their deep pockets to offer 6 – 12 months of leave, these are the exception not the rule.

For small organizations with limited resources—like ours—what sorts of policies and organizational practices can balance the desire for a robust and equitable PPL without putting too much strain on our budget and staff?

This was the challenge we faced when designing our first PPL earlier this year. What’s more, this challenge was exacerbated by a dearth of available data on PPL policies at similarly sized organizations. Without examples and accessible data, regressive practices are able to prevail and workers’ ability to demand better conditions, benefits and compensation are severely hindered; employers rather than employees are favored, and a race to the bottom commences—rather than one to the top.

We think it is important to combat this by contributing to a culture of shared knowledge and practices and transparency. Such an approach can help us all make our workplace policies the best they can be. We are sharing it in the hope it will serve as both encouragement for other organizations to create or improve their PPL policies, and an invitation to challenge us to improve our own.

MSI Integrity is a small organization, but when our staff and our Board sat down to write this policy, we were guided by a big vision and a clear set of values: an anti-oppressive policy that supports different family structures and gender equity, that rejects the gender binary and that provides significant time for the critical period of family bond formation—and the care work that entails.

We believe our new policy reflects those values, while also balancing the financial and personnel constraints we have as a small organization. It does this by:

  • Providing up to six months paid leave over two years. Rather than make this available as a full-lump sum, which could put too much financial and personal strain our organization, the leave is available in two phases. Initially, up to four months of guaranteed paid leave in the first year after the birth, adoption or fostering. In the second year, as long as we have a minimum of six-months operating expenses in the bank, two more months are available.
  • Equal leave duration and compensation for pregnancies, adoptions, and foster placements;
  • Equal leave regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation and family structure, or whether the worker is the child-bearing, legally adopting, or fostering parent, or the partner of that parent; and
  • Making leave available for individuals or their partners who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth.

We share some more details on the PPL below, but are happy to share the full policy upon request.

The Policy

Sixteen Weeks of Leave Guaranteed For Everyone. Our workers are all now entitled to four months of their salary and benefits as paid parental leave. Worked at MSI Integrity for less than six months? You are still entitled to this benefit, but at 50% of your salary.

Eight More Weeks (if we can afford it) in the second year. Workers who have been employed at MSI Integrity for at least six months are entitled to eight more weeks of paid leave in the following year, totalling six months, if our organization has a minimum of six-months operating expenses reserved. Spacing the leave in this way and having it contingent on adequate funds in the second year, makes our policy among the most generous available in the nonprofit sector, without putting undue stress on the rest of our staff or organizational resources. It also acts as an incentive for staff to remain at MSI Integrity over the long-term. Staff believe this strikes a fair balance of providing adequate paid leave to our workers while maintaining a robust financial position for our small organization.

Equity across gender, sexual orientation and family structure. All employees are eligible for our PPL policy regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, or family circumstance. A policy that discriminates based on gender is one that maintains women’s segregated and lowered status in the workplace. Our policy is about gender equity rather than “gender-neutrality” because we are specifically tending to the discrimination women face in the workplace and in the broader labor market as those who most often take PPL. Policies that give longer leave to “birthing parents” also reinforce practices and expectations of women in the home, putting more pressure on them to act as the primary caregiver; it facilities a lesser role for non-birthing parents in the family by requiring their quicker return to work, and thus giving them less time to bond and immerse in their new family dynamic.

That said, we are aware that in workplaces with similar policies male-identified individuals will often not take the PPL due to cultural or other internal workplace pressures, thereby reproducing the discriminatory conditions of less just, maternity-focused policies. In response, it incumbent on us not just to have robust policies, but also to facilitate a culture of solidarity and justice to ensure that gender discrimination—or all forms of discrimination—is not a byproduct of child-rearing.

Further, by offering PPL to all employees regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, we aim to reject the gender binary and heteronormativity, and to support rather than punish LGBTQ+ families. Similarly, we hope to embrace different family structures, rather than endlessly favoring the systematized defaults of marriage, monogamy and other forms of nuclearization.

Pregnancies, Adoptions, and Foster Placements. Our policy is not limited to pregnancies. Parents who are birthing, legally adopting, or legally fostering a child, as well as their partners, are eligible for PPL. We have decided to include adopting and foster parents, and to not differentiate their durations and compensations, to push back against the supremacy of the nuclear family structure.

What are we still grappling with?

First, this was a learning process for us, and we are keen to receive feedback on how to expand the policy for greater inclusivity. We believe this move is a solid first-step in recognizing and empowering families of different shapes and sizes, but if there are ways we could improve it, please let us know!

Second, the policy focuses on supporting people who are bringing a child into their life, but we recognize that this is only one instance in which workers need support with their families and that a family is not—and should not—be defined by the decision to raise a child. We would love to see examples of how organizations and communities are more holistically and expansively conceptualizing their support for working families. We are interested in how organizations support individuals during critical moments, such as birth, illness and death, but also in the day-to-day.

As noted above, we are happy to share our full policy upon request. We want to help other workers in our field empower themselves and their workplaces with a progressive PPL policy. At the same time, our inbox is open for feedback, ideas, criticism, or questions.

But if you want to hear from our Executive Director, Amelia Evans, you’ll have to wait until later in  2021—when she returns from paid parental leave!

Will Fair Trade Milk Loosen the Squeeze on US Dairy Workers?

US grocery store milk aisle selling a variety of dairy products
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

openDemocracy published an opinion piece by MSI Integrity’s Amelia Evans and Teddy Ostrow on Thursday. The piece, titled “Fair Trade milk could be bad for US dairy workers’ health,” outlines the structural issues with the voluntary certification model adopted many multi-stakeholder initiatives, like Fair Trade USA, which has expanded its renowned labeling system into the US dairy industry.

Evans and Ostrow also briefly detail what a better system for upholding workers’ rights in the sector might look like, pointing to Migrant Justice’s Milk With Dignity, a worker-driven social responsibility program.

Evans and Ostrow conclude:

Fair Trade USA’s expansion into dairy will only risk consumer confusion and the undermining of a more robust and worker-friendly system. Power-shifting solutions are needed; ones that get to the root issues of our food – and, frankly, the entire economic – system. Glossy labels can’t relieve the pressure on workers lower down in supply chains. Only when workers and communities have meaningful power will the inequality and abuse that characterise the US dairy industry come to an end.

Read the full piece here, and for a more comprehensive analysis of Fair Trade USA’s expansion into US dairy, see Fair World Project’s report, Label Before Labor: Fair Trade USA’s Dairy Label Fails Workers.

2020 Annual Report and a Way Forward in 2021

Not fit for purpose webinar illustration
A live-drawn illustration of the March 30, 2020 webinar discussion, "Business-as-Usual," hosted by MSI Integrity and Harvard Law's International Human Rights Clinic.

2020 was not a good year. It began with the world fearful of another war in the Middle East after the United States assassinated a top Iranian general, and it ended with the COVID-19 global death toll fast approaching two million. Two million. In late January 2021, we surpassed that unthinkable benchmark. We want to offer our thoughts and condolences to those of you who have been affected by this pandemic.

This suffering has underscored the urgency of transforming our global economic, legal, and political systems, which contributed to the cataclysmic harms of this pandemic. Such change will necessitate international and national solidarity. Indeed, among the pain and disruptions of 2020, it was heartening to see many inspiring acts of solidarity, from the formation of robust mutual aid networks around the world, to the months-long protest movement in the United States for racial justice.

This was also a powerful and important year of change for MSI Integrity, which we’ve outlined in our 2020 Annual Report. We released Not Fit-For-Purpose, a landmark report distilling our insights from a decade of exploring and researching the effectiveness of multistakeholder initiatives. The report has led to many significant debates and discussions—from within the chambers of the United States Supreme Court to virtual convenings of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights and among MSIs themselves—with many in the human rights community embracing some of its key messages: there are limits to voluntarism, more innovative regulatory interventions are needed, and we need to change how businesses themselves are governed and owned.

Importantly, we also embarked on a new direction for 2021 onwards challenging and changing the corporate form itself. After years witnessing how corporations behave within MSIs, it became clear to us that if we want a society and economy that value people and the planet, then we first need to change the incentives and decision-making structures of the corporation itself. Until our economic enterprises are governed and owned by workers and communities, we will never meaningfully prevent companies from abusing rights or address the untenable levels of economic inequality that characterize both our globalized and localized economies. There is still much for us to learn. But our initial efforts in steering the corporate accountability and human rights communities towards the work of those who have long been proposing and advocating for such transformations—the labor, racial and climate justice, and wider social movements—has already proved deeply rewarding. Perhaps most exciting is that with our transition in programmatic focus came a staffing transition. We expanded our team to three new people who will begin in 2021 to push forward on our new direction: Perhaps most exciting is that with our transition in programmatic focus came a staffing transition. We expanded our team to three new people who will begin in 2021 to push forward on our new direction: Milap Patel, our new Research Director, Carmen Guan, our Development and Outreach Coordinator, and Noah Klein-Markman, a technical and research consultant. But in 2020 we also said farewell to two excellent staff members: former Research Coordinator, Malene Alleyne (now running her own nonprofit, Freedom Imaginaries), and Research Director, Shauna Curphey (now General Counsel at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers). It would be dishonest of us to foretell a much better 2021, but sincere to expect the fight for economic and social justice to continue on. Our hat is firmly in the ring. Already this year we’ve partnered with a number of organizations, including the Transnational Institute and Corporate Accountability, to co-organize a webinar on the corporate capture of global governance, and we have major new works in the pipeline promoting alternative business structures. Finally, we want to express our gratitude to our friends, family, community, funders, and colleagues, without whose support we could not have gotten through 2020. Please read and share our 2020 Annual Report, and stay tuned for quarterly updates on our progress and activities by signing up for our mailing list.

Webinar—The Great Take Over: How We Fight the Davos Capture of Global Governance

The Great Take Over

Tune in on Tuesday, January 26 from 10AM–11:30AM EST for a webinar co-organized by MSI Integrity, “The Great Take Over: How we fight the Davos capture of global governance.” From the event’s description:

The post COVID-19 world presents a new opportunity to deepen the corporate plans of capturing global governance and ensuring it serves the interests of corporate business and profits instead of putting in place policies for the wellbeing of humanity. It is urgent to unmask this global and systemic trend by showing how it operates in key sensitive sectors as well as taking the challenge to generate peoples power towards building a strong public and participatory governance for a world beyond the health, climate, inequality and democracy crises. Is there a future for another multilateralism?

Framed by the ongoing take over of corporate capture and privatization of global governance, the webinar will take a dynamic and participatory format, inviting a multi-sectoral perspective from key movements and sectors who will share their struggles, strategies, and common challenges. Questions and comments will be fielded by an open forum, and the webinar will invite attendees to join the fight against “The Great Take Over.”

The webinar is co-organized by Corporate Accountability, FIAN, Focus on the Global South, FOEI, G2H2, IT for Change, Peoples Health Movement, Public Services International, Transnational Institute, and MSI Integrity.

Register for the Zoom webinar here and share the event on Facebook.

New Report: “Ethical Finance” Ought to Mean Investing in Cooperatives

co-op handshake

MSI Integrity’s Amelia Evans rejects the “myth of the ethical corporation” and calls for redefining “ethical” businesses as those with worker ownership and control

These days, we hear a lot about “ethical” or “socially responsible” finance. $31 trillion of it, in fact. But nearly all of it is going to conventional corporations—those run by boards and executive management—rather than alternative and often successful business forms, like cooperatives.

That’s a problem, according to Amelia Evans, MSI Integrity’s Executive Director and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Cooperative Digital Economy, which just published her new report, Redefining the Concept of an “Ethical Business”: A Roadmap for Unlocking Access to Socially Responsible Investment Funding for Worker Cooperatives.

Indeed, “ethical” finance depends on how “ethical” the businesses are that receive it. But can corporations be “ethical” if their workers, and the communities they affect, have little to no ownership of the company and control over its operations? No, says Evans. And the notion that they can is what she calls the “myth of the ethical corporation.”

“Ethical finance ought to mean investing in businesses that enable workers to profit from their labor and have a voice in the conditions of their work; it ought to mean investing in worker cooperatives.”

There are more ethical and equitable business forms, however, like worker cooperatives, but their inability to secure financing largely bars them from success and ubiquity. Evans’s report presents a way around this obstacle, which requires in no small part, redefining what an “ethical” business really is and quashing the widely accepted myth that corporations can fit the ticket.

The report fits within MSI Integrity’s recent shift in organizational focus and Evans’s previous work on challenging the dominant corporate form as a human rights project. Provisionally titled Beyond Corporations, MSI Integrity’s new direction will work to promote worker and community ownership and governance as the true determinants of “ethical” businesses.

The first part of Evans’s paper identifies some of the benefits of worker cooperatives, such as livable wages for worker-members, as well as their fundamental principles, also known as the Rochdale Principles, which apply to all types of cooperatives.

Part two explores the common funding avenues for worker cooperatives and their benefits/limitations. Worker co-ops are often founded and maintained through member-funding, debt-funding, retention of profits, and emerging forms of equity funding that require breaking the conventional ownership and governance structure of the cooperative. Limitations for sustainable funding include member-funding’s narrow scope; traditional finance’s misperceptions about, lack of familiarity with and limited interest in worker cooperatives; low initial profits in a market driven by growth-obsessed short-termism; and the undermining of co-op principles and benefits where investment is predicated on ownership and control concessions.

Part three and four are the crux of Evans’s report. They cover the need to challenge prevailing assumptions about our economic forms that allow conventional corporations to dominate, and to reframe “ethical” businesses as those that share profits and control with workers and communities—and transitively, “ethical” or “socially responsible” finance is that which funds cooperatives.

“Ethical finance ought to mean investing in businesses that enable workers to profit from their labor and have a voice in the conditions of their work; it ought to mean investing in worker cooperatives,” Evans writes.

Part four pitches a number of strategies to get socially responsible investors to support cooperatives. Among them are debunking “the myth of the ethical corporation,” the false notion that the corporation, a structurally extractive and inequitable entity, can be “ethical”; reframing ethics and equitability according to who businesses are accountable to and who owns, controls and benefits from those businesses; and promoting successful examples of cooperatives for skeptics.

Evans concludes, “Fundamentally, increasing funding options available to cooperatives to the extent necessary for cooperatives will only happen by dispelling the myths of unbound capitalism, which decades of struggle will attest is no small task.”

MSI Integrity’s work in 2021 will build on the findings of Redefining the Concept of an “Ethical Business,” exploring how the narrative (and myth) of the ethical corporation can be challenged and changed. As the report points out, the existence, viability and desirability of alternative business forms are largely unknown to the broader public, as well as policymakers, investors and other actors in the position to combat the human rights abuses and inequality the private sector contributes to.

Read Evans’s full report and those by other Institute for Cooperative Digital Economy research fellows here, and please reach out to MSI Integrity here to join its effort to expose the myth of the ethical corporation and promote alternative business forms.

Rethinking MSIs: Q&A on the Blog Series

A banana with a Fairtrade label. Fairtrade International is a prominent multi-stakeholder initiative.

In July 2020, MSI Integrity launched the blog series, “Rethinking Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives,” with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). Accompanying the publication of MSI Integrity’s major report, Not Fit-For-Purpose, the blog series sought to share several critical perspectives on the MSI field. The contributions largely honed in on two of the key questions posed by the report: are MSIs working for rights holders, and do we need to rethink the role of MSIs as human rights tools?

Beginning with Christie Miedema in her piece, “Binding Brands to Create Change,” and ending with Fola Adeleke’s “Rethinking Corporate Accountability,” the series amounted to nine thoughtful contributions. To close the series, Amelia Evans and Teddy Ostrow of MSI Integrity shared their thoughts on some of those perspectives, as well as what’s next for the organization.

Teddy Ostrow: Amelia, can you recap the purpose of the nine-part blog series, “Rethinking MSIs,” and how it’s relevant to global politics right now?

Amelia Evans: The devastation caused by this global pandemic has pushed many people to a place of discomfort: to confront what many communities and activists have long been saying—that our economic, legal and political systems are failing to protect people and the planet. Debates and discussions have been unfolding in certain quarters about which, if any, of our existing frameworks, tools and strategies have been able to meaningfully address the vast societal inequities that characterize our time, and thus which interventions should accompany us—or might propel us—into a more equitable and just future. While by no means prompted by COVID, as we recognized the failures and limitations of MSIs well before then, this series on “Rethinking MSIs” can be seen as part of those more probing and deep reflections on the adequacies—or rather, inadequacies—of our existing system of rights protections and measures to address corporate power and abuse.

This series—and our report—is also deeply relevant within the specific business and human rights context. First, the single unifying thread of all the voices in this series, consistent with the key finding of Not Fit-for-Purpose, is that voluntarism is inadequate for ensuring the protection of rights. The insufficiency of MSIs underscores the need for efforts underway for binding human rights regulations. These range from the ongoing UN business and human rights treaty negotiations (the sixth session took place as this series unfolded), through to regional, national and local efforts.

Second, there are important implications for the content of such regulation. In particular, some of the contributors in this series point to mandatory human rights due diligence-—which is central to both the treaty and many proposed new national regulations—as the solution. But is it? By itself, this seems unlikely. To begin, the proposed European law has a safe harbour provision that will limit liability if companies implement yet to be determined “recognised (industry) standards”—presumably, this includes the standards set by MSIs. Beyond this circularity, the questions of whether due diligence will ensure actual accountability for abuse—rather than accountability for failing to follow due process—or meaningful access to remedy for communities loom large, as does something much more significant that is raised by this blog series: are reforms enough, or is what we need a transformation of our entire system?

TO: All of the contributions bring up pretty critical points about the MSI field, but I wanted to pick out a few from the series to explore with you further. Let’s start with the contribution from Harris Gleckman, a longstanding expert on MSIs. His contribution, “Where is the Debate About Democracy and Multi-Stakeholder Governance?” outlines a crucial component that he sees as missing in MSIs: democracy. Where is or isn’t “democracy” in MSIs and the debates surrounding them?

AE: In basic terms, if, to you, democracy is merely a system of rules about casting votes, then MSIs have that in spades! All the MSIs in our database are governed either by majority vote or consensus. Many have bylaws or charters that run for dozens of pages, outlining specific rules for membership, voting and other governance matters.

On their face, these rules might seem notionally democractic. But democracy is not just about rules. Its literal translation is “people power.” However, as Jaff Bamenjo points out in the series, MSIs are arguably just “lip service” for communities. The people most directly affected by MSIs-—the workers or communities whose rights are at jeopardy as a result of corporate or government behavior–rarely have a voice in their governance or operation. Only 13% of MSIs have any community or worker representation, and those representatives are not democratically elected or otherwise accountable to the broader constituency of workers or communities. Thus, decisions about the human rights standards, monitoring systems and remedial mechanisms of MSIs—all of which are structures intended to be used or directly benefit rights holders—are made with little, if any, input from rights holders. Sure, many MSIs offer “public consultation” periods that technically allow for community input. But our experience from interviewing almost 120 workers and community members who work or live near companies participating in MSIs from the Philippines, Nigeria and Cameroon, was that these individuals had very little, if any, engagement or familiarity with MSIs that were supposed to protect their rights or offer them access to remedy. They rarely even knew about their rights to file complaints, let alone the websites and forms they would need to access if they wanted to shape standards or request MSI board members take actions that would better protect their rights.

In my conversations with MSI staff, or corporate and government MSI members over the years, many have explained that it is civil society who act as a proxy for community voices. However, not only are most of the organizations that participate in MSIs large international or capital-city-based organizations without direct connection or engagement with communities—think large international NGOs or national research or policy institutes—but few would understand their role as representing communities. Put simply, MSIs are top-down initiatives, not bottom-up democratic institutions.

This is to say nothing of the power imbalances and lack of equality between civil society and corporations, which—as is explained in detail in Not Fit-for-Purpose—the formal rules and processes set by MSIs do little to address. Indeed, many of the rules and processes MSIs have have the perverse effect: putting more burdens on civil society.

TO: Judy Gearhart of the Accountability Research Center wrote about how MSIs have failed to fill governance gaps, one of their key original purposes. As Gearhart explores, how do we “cure the governance gap” and are MSIs a means to that end?

AE: MSIs were formed as a result of the dearth of global, national and even local human rights protections—or the failure to enforce those human rights laws or standards that do exist. Like Judy, and indeed almost all of the contributors to this series, I believe that MSIs have not been able to close those gaps. After a decade of examining dozens of different initiatives, we have amassed a wealth of evidence that MSIs will never be fit-for-purpose to close those gaps.

Why? Because MSIs have not fundamentally restricted corporate power or addressed the power imbalances that drive abuse. Companies have preserved their autonomy and safeguarded their interests throughout the design, governance and implementation of MSIs. The mechanisms most central to rights protection, such as systems for detecting or remediating abuses, have been structurally weak. This has meant that MSIs are capable of achieving positive outcomes where there is genuine commitment on the part of corporate members to change; however, when that goodwill breaks down—as it often has—MSIs have been able to do little to protect human rights.

This doesn’t mean that MSIs cannot play a role in the promotion of human rights, or that they have not had successes. Many participants in MSIs have reported the positive opportunities that MSIs present for learning, relationship-building and experimentation, all of which represent functions that MSIs are well-suited to serve. But as robust rights protection or accountability institutions, MSIs have failed.

TO: Bennett Freeman contributed a piece that draws on his vast experience creating, and working with and in, MSIs. Rather than scrap MSIs all together, he recommends revitalizing them, making them “fitter-for-purpose.” Will MSI Integrity be supporting that notion in its future work?

AE: With intensive external pressure and more resources, might MSIs be capable of incremental improvements? Sure. However, simply and fundamentally, they are not structured to hold companies to account or provide survivors of abuse with access to remedy; they are tools that share power with corporations, rather than restrict or limit that power. Reports of MSIs certifying companies despite their use of child labor, deforestation or poverty wages continue to surface. This is why it is time to recognize their limitations: MSIs are tools for corporate engagement, not corporate accountability.

To us, three decades of experimentation with trying to make MSIs serve accountability or remedial functions is enough. We live in a time of climate emergency, extreme economic inequality and deep racial injustice—all of which have direct links to corporate behavior. There is not enough attention on addressing the root causes of abuse: the incentives and decision-making structures in companies that drive them violate the rights of communities and workers. As we announced when we released this report, we believe it’s time for the human rights community to begin to challenge and change the corporate form itself: to put communities and workers at the center of the governance and ownership of businesses.

TO: One last contribution I want to highlight is a creative one by Tyler Giannini, Director of the IHRC, who we partnered with in the blog series, and Rebecca Tweedie, a Harvard Law Student and former intern at MSI Integrity. They talk about how corporations in MSIs are like foxes in the chicken coop. What are they saying here? And how should we extend the lessons of corporate power in MSIs to other types of multi-stakeholder projects and efforts?

AE: Tyler and Rebecca’s contribution importantly recognizes the extraordinary power differential between corporations and civil society. The premise of MSIs is that they actually share power among different stakeholder groups. But not all stakeholders are equal. Corporations have significantly greater power and resources than civil society and communities, and indeed, many governments. Thus, without a concerted effort to fix this power imbalance, corporate interests have generally won out in MSIs. Rather than insisting on rigorous mechanisms or binding commitments that would help curtail corporate power—such as requiring members to adopt legally enforceable standards, or subjecting members to the authority of a robust and independent grievance mechanism—at each turn in their design, MSIs have adopted approaches that allow corporate interests to prevail. In this context, the regulated target—the company—is left with immense control over efforts to improve its conduct and extensive power to push for compromise in contested areas. This is in counterpoint to the legally enforceable initiatives of the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network, such as Milk with Dignity and the Fair Food Program, that are designed by and for workers.

As we move our horizons to challenging and reimagining the corporate form itself, the lessons here are significant. To begin, it is clear from the grand experiment of multi-stakeholderism that voice does not equal power. Thus, adding worker representatives on corporate boards, by itself, may not be the silver bullet, despite the idea’s growing support amongst reform-minded politicians and researchers. The devil will be in the details: do they have majority or veto power? Are they accountable to the wider workplace? Are they sufficiently resourced and empowered? Put another way, the lesson of multi-stakeholderism is that we must meaningfully transfer decision-making power away from dominant corporate interests to workers and communities. If we do not, we risk embedding and perhaps even enlarging corporate power and interests.

TO: How will this blog series inform MSI Integrity’s work going forward?

AE: Well, you are helping to craft those next steps too, and I’ve already thrown out a lot of thoughts. Let’s mix it up: how do you think it is shaping our future work?

TO: If you say so.

Although we’re moving away from the MSI as our primary focus, their influence on debates and actions around human rights and economic inequality are inescapable. The international standard-setting MSIs that our organization studied until this recent shift are important test subjects for the broader expansion of multi-stakeholderism across private and public institutions. Therefore, putting the magnifying glass on MSIs, as this blog series did, is critical to understand how this model impacts rights holders, and what bits and pieces of it we should take, if any, as we pursue alternative means of rights protection and economic and social liberation. The blog contributions tackle both the technical minutiae and the birds-eye view of MSIs. And if we’re going to pursue more equitable models for our economy, we need both. We need vision and we need the details.

I understand this blog series as having a two-pillared meaning for MSI Integrity. First, is that it’s a form of closure for us as we move onto our new direction. And second, it’s also an opening, both for us and the broader business and human rights or corporate accountability communities, to question our assumptions about how we shape our primary economic engines—corporations—and all the institutions that revolve around them. Rethinking MSIs is one way to get that started.

AE: Bingo. There are also important lessons that apply when imagining and promoting alternative business structures. From the importance of transferring power, rather than simply notionally sharing it in ways that simply reinforce existing power imbalances, through to experiences from MSIs about what enables meaningful worker and rights-holder participation, representation and engagement in complex operations or governance arrangements. Understanding how the limits of multi-stakeholderism at an industry-level translate to whether or how multi-stakeholderism should apply at the firm level.

Amelia Evans is the Executive Director and co-founder of MSI Integrity. She is an international human rights lawyer and an Open Society Fellow on Economic Inequality.

Teddy Ostrow is Research and Communications Associate at MSI Integrity and an associate editor at OR Books.

This Q&A closes the joint blog series by the International Human Rights Clinic and MSI Integrity. The series critically examined the role and value of MSIs in business and human rights; it coincided with a new report, Not Fit-For-Purpose, which compiles experience and insights over the last decade and explores cross-cutting trends and lessons learned about MSIs, as a field, from a human rights perspective. Read other blogs in the series here.

Rethinking MSIs: Rethinking Corporate Accountability

Ralph Lauren storefront
Shop window of Ralph Lauren, Prince's Building, Central, Hong Kong (Wikimedia Commons).

By Fola Adeleke

A version of this contribution was originally published by Afronomics Law on December 11, 2020.

Earlier this month, investigative journalists disclosed that Indian garment factories responsible for the supply to global supermarket chains such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Ralph Lauren were exploiting their workers. Some of the allegations include poor wages, 22-hour work shifts with no toilet or water breaks. These conditions exist despite the existence of a local law, the Indian Factories Act, which sets out working conditions for workers in this industry. More importantly, the brands that use these suppliers in India are all part of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) that was set up in 1998 shortly after the sweatshop conditions that engulfed major brands such as Nike and Gap in the 1990s.

The ETI is part of a trend known as multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) that involve a “collaboration among various public and private actors—such as corporations, governments, CSOs, and rights holders—that have a stake in an issue.” These MSIs set global voluntary industry standards for its members to follow and are often punted as addressing issues of public concern such as human rights violations in specific industries. These MSIs are geared towards establishing a governance model to tackle a gap “where a state either cannot, or will not, fulfill its duty to protect its citizens against human rights violations by companies.” The stated aim of the ETI is to improve working conditions in global supply chains by developing effective approaches to implementing the Base Code of labour practice developed by the initiative.

Despite the increasing popularity of MSIs, it is clear that self-regulation through this governance model is not the answer to driving corporate accountability for matters of public concern such as human rights protection. In a report released in July 2020 by MSI Integrity, a non-profit originally dedicated to understanding the human rights impact and value of MSIs, it was found that MSIs are not effective tools for holding corporations accountable for abuses, protecting rights holders against human rights violations, or providing survivors and victims’ with access to remedy. The report showed that we need to rethink the role of MSIs and the presence of an MSI in an industry should not be a substitute for public regulation.

In the particular case of the ETI, the initiative’s own self-evaluation into whether it has delivered on its mission and theory of change found as far back as 2015 that “corporate purchasing practices and weak trade unions were key areas to address in efforts to produce meaningful improvement in working conditions.” Yet, five years later, the MSI has not addressed this issue and the ongoing violations taking place in India have become known. The initiative acknowledges that the tripartite nature of trying to please stakeholders from the public, private and civil society sectors threaten “meaningful action because it necessarily entails conflicting interests and objectives between members.” These findings show that the grand experiment of MSIs as described in the MSI Integrity report is not working. While there are modest achievements such as the success with the elimination of child labor practices among the members of the ETI, for example, we need to revisit why public regulation does not suffice in holding corporations accountable in the first place?

Developing new systems for corporate accountability

When corporations commit human rights abuses, the problem is usually not due to a lack of regulation. In the most recent scandal involving India and the garment industry, the Indian Factories Act sets enforceable standards for companies to comply with. This also applies in South Africa where a robust set of regulations including the Labour Relations Act, National Minimum Wage Act and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act all set out comprehensive standards for corporations to follow. Yet, earlier this year, a foreign-owned Durban-based company was found to have been “locking” in its employees within its premises in a race to quickly produce personal protective equipment as COVID-19 was spreading around the country.

This suggests that the issues go beyond regulation and to an extent, enforcement. This brings to the fore the role of state and non-state actors in canvassing for a socially responsible corporation. The legal core of corporations continues to be the prioritization of shareholder value; however, to tackle the governance and accountability of corporations, we need to expand the interests that corporations serve. In the existing model for the corporate form as recognized in South Africa and globally, while shareholders are recognized as those who hold financial interests/investments in a company, there have been attempts to broaden the definition of who a shareholder is with various options emerging, including employee ownership schemes and the recognition of benefit corporations. However, these alternative models do not sufficiently focus on the diversity of stakeholders and the inclusion of rights holders who are affected by a company’s operations in the management and governance of a company. Consequently, MSIs have been championed as the anti-model to the traditional corporate board. Although the presence of different stakeholder groups in MSIs are intended to express the equality of parties in decision-making, the power dynamics in MSIs (big corporation versus local NGO) often affect the effectiveness of these fora.

In order to prevent the use of MSIs for corporate whitewashing and to involve the home state of multinational corporations rather than the singular focus on host states when dealing with corporate behavior, there is an emerging initiative to adopt a binding business and human rights treaty as a form of transnational regulation of multinational corporations. With the adoption of this treaty not guaranteed, urgent mechanisms are needed to provide remedies for corporate violations of human rights. According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which backs a role for MSIs in human rights protection, “poorly designed … grievance mechanisms [within MSIs] can risk compounding a sense of grievance amongst affected stakeholders by heightening their sense of disempowerment and disrespect by the process.” While it is easy to identify the important features of a well-designed grievance mechanism such as independence, accessibility, affordability, transparency, efficiency, among others, establishing non-judicial mechanisms with these features are easier said than done.

Looking forward

It is important that future reform on grievance mechanisms, corporate ownership and governance must center workers and communities in a time where economic inequality is expanding and companies are becoming bigger in size, capital, profits and their impact on people and our planet increasingly profound. This will entail new forms of knowledge generation that involve rights holders and other marginalized groups. There are lessons to learn from the emergent solidarity economy and new economy movements (including feminist economics) in both the Global North and South. These utilize community-centered models that prioritize community agency and will generate new ways of thinking about corporate accountability.

Fola Adeleke is Board Secretary of MSI Integrity, Senior Research Fellow with Wits University and an Atlantic Senior Fellow on Socio-Economic Equity at the London School of Economics. He is a South African trained lawyer whose work focuses on international economic law and human rights, corporate transparency, open government and accountability within the extractive industry.

This is the ninth contribution in a joint blog series by the International Human Rights Clinic and MSI Integrity. The series will critically examine the role and value of MSIs in business and human rights; it coincides with a new report, Not Fit-For-Purpose, which compiles experience and insights over the last decade and explores cross-cutting trends and lessons learned about MSIs, as a field, from a human rights perspective. Read other blogs in the series here

Post-Election, A Constant Remains: Our Planet, Our People Need Transformation

George Floyd Protest Miami 2020
George Floyd protests in Miami, Florida on June 6, 2020 (Flickr / Mike Shaheen).

It was always the case that whoever entered or remained in the oval office in January 2021, notwithstanding important differences between the presidential candidates, there would remain a constant; one that has already spanned presidents and congresses, Republican and Democratic alike. That is the US government’s inadequate response to the human, non-human, and planetary necessity to transform our economy and social relations to value people over corporate profit—and obversely, the people’s obligation to force that transformation.

On the grandest scale, the survival of our planet and its inhabitants require nothing short of the greatest shift in economic and social relations in human history. The fossil fuel economy and the extractive economic system of which it is part must be demolished and rebuilt into one that is regenerative, just, democratic, clean, equitable, and sustainable for the flourishing of human and non-human life globally.

Such a shift—which must occur—requires a global, multi-racial, cross-movement effort to expand, democratize, and decolonize ownership and control of land, resources, workplaces, housing, and all the systems of our fast-deteriorating world; one based on solidarity—the understanding that liberation of the most vulnerable is by definition the liberation of all.

This is an incredible task. How will we do it? What actions and frameworks does this effort need to manifest?

As an organization that wants to see the private sector respect human rights and the environment, we have learned that transformative change requires demanding a foundationally different workplace structure. One that centers workers and communities in its governance and ownership, the most consequential elements of economic and social power in the workplace. It means recognizing that having control over one’s workplace and profiting directly from one’s labor must become universal rights for all workers, the benefits of their fruition cutting across race, class, political affiliation, and other social differences.

One duty going forward will be following the lead of the solidarity economy movement and building more institutions and enterprises structured by these principles, such as platform cooperatives and steward-owned companies, and pressuring existing businesses away from the dominant corporate model. Another duty will be demanding President-elect Biden, subsequent presidential administrations, and local and state actors to develop concrete policies that claw back corporate power, dramatically expand community ownership, and put workers at the helm of their own workplaces. Such change is not just possible, but is already happening—albeit too slowly—the bipartisan support and passage of the Main Street Employment Act in 2018 being just one legislative example.

Why do we think these changes are necessary? Because we believe without workers and communities at the center of our economy, the private sector will continue to violate peoples’ rights, deepen economic and social inequalities, and risk environmental collapse.

But the barbarism of both the last four years and the last few centuries will not be undone by our next president; not insofar as strong international and domestic coalitions exerting extraordinary pressure on our entire political and economic systems are absent. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement, renewed labor insurgency, and the now greatly unemployed public’s increasing frustration with public institutions, hollowed or privatized by austere neoliberal governance, are the disparate puzzle pieces of transformation. Our work must support and complement organizers and activists already connecting the dots between these issues and movements, as well as other efforts focused on the environment, gender and sexual liberation, anti-imperialism, disability and health justice, indigenous sovereignty, world hunger and poverty, and others to empower all workers and their communities. Indeed, the political strike, a uniting of worker power and social and political movement demands, is no longer a labor action of American history books. Dockworkers struck on Juneteenth in solidarity with Black lives, and as we await Biden’s assumption of power, labor unions were prepared for unprecedented general strikes in the event Donald Trump refused to leave office despite the validity of the election outcome.

Such is the movement-building necessary, in our simultaneously insecure and ripe moment, for deep transformations to our society and economy. It’s time for us to do the work. But what does this mean tangibly? Right now MSI Integrity is examining how we can draw from our experience demanding the private sector be held accountable to human rights standards to go Beyond Corporations, in addition to democratizing how we do that work. We see gaps and untapped alliances in the work of those who are building and creating a solidarity economy, and those who are resisting and challenging corporate power in other capacities, from those fighting against Nestle and Amazon, to debtors’ unions and the struggle for Medicare for All; gaps we can help fill and alliances we can help foster. The coming months will be critical in our own transformation and we plan to detail this shift publicly. Too much is at stake to drag our feet. The post-election constant—the necessity of transformation— will need all hands on deck.