A new stage in the living wage debate: reflections on the Roundtable on Living Wage in the Agri-food Sector

Photo by Katha Haru courtesy of GoodWeave International
Photo by Katha Haru courtesy of GoodWeave International
Kristin Komives, Impacts Director at ISEAL, reflects on how far the discussion around living wage has come after attending the Roundtable on Living Wage in the Agri-food Sector.

“Five years ago it was hard to even mention living wage in a consultation process.  Today we are hearing about the first tests of living wage implementation strategies”.  This is how Noura Hanna, co-chair of the Global Living Wage Coalition management committee, described the remarkable change she has seen in multi-stakeholder dialogue about living wages.

That we are in a new era for discussions about wages was very evident during the Roundtable on Living Wage in the Agri-food Sector, hosted by the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Global Living Wage Coalition on May 8 in The Hague.  Leon Mol, Director of Product Safety and Social Compliance for Ahold Delhaize, characterized the afternoon as one of the first mature discussions about living wage he has attended.  Michelle Bhattacharyya, the coordinator of the Global Living Wage Coalition, noted that there was almost no debate about the definition of living wage at this event; instead the focus was on how to move from measurement to implementation.

This event marked a major milestone for the Global Living Wage Coalition – a Coalition of seven sustainability standard systems alongside experts Richard Anker and Martha Anker, dedicated to developing a common and impactful approach to measuring living wage.  Fairtrade International, GoodWeave, Social Accountability International, UTZ, Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance, and the Sustainable Agriculture Network have been working together under the umbrella of the ISEAL Alliance for the last 4 years.  The Coalition has received financial support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, GIZ, the standard systems themselves, and corporate actors. 

The first step in the collaboration was to agree on a common definition of living wage.  Today, the Anker living wage methodology is publically available and the Coalition has produced or is in the process of developing living wage benchmarks for more than 20 countries and regions. 

Jos Huber, Senior Policy Advisor for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, credited the standard systems with having the courage to acknowledge that paying a minimum wage is not enough -- many workers receiving a minimum wage and working for certified operations still live in poverty.  Rather than hide from this, the standards organisations joined together to develop a cooperative approach; the resulting living wage benchmarks can now be used by many actors to drive change.  While living wage estimates are useful, Ms. Huber said, data will only drive change when actively used by many stakeholders.  She called on the multi-stakeholder group present at the meeting to work on three important fronts:  connecting living wage estimates to collective bargaining agreements and sourcing practices, enforcing and raising minimum wages, and helping employers and supply chains figure how to absorb higher labour costs. 

Sander de Jong of Fairfood said the GLWC benchmarks provide a common language on which to build implementation initiatives.  UTZ and Rainforest Alliance demonstrated how this could work, presenting the first steps in their new efforts in the coffee and banana sectors respectively.  The Living Wage Lab, started in 2015 by Fairfood and Hivos, aims to create a space where different actors can meet to discuss experiments with living wage implementation.  Wilbert Flinterman of Fairtrade International presented one such initiative during the roundtable event – a joint initiative with Wagagai (a floriculture farm in Uganda) to supplement negotiated wages with a market contribution via a Fairtrade income fund.    

Other key issues raised during the roundtable event were: how to better involve trade unions, the important role of governments, and what it would take to facilitate productive discussions about raising wages within supply chains.  Overall, the afternoon was an open conversation about the challenges different actors face in working towards living wage, peppered with promising glimpses of possible ways forward.  As ISEAL Board Chair Britta Wyss put it, the Global Living Wage Coalition planted a seed which has now become a seedling; now we all need to figure out how we can help this initiative grow into a strong, fruit-bearing tree.