Partnership is the new leadership

by Jan Saumweber | Walmart
Tuesday, 14 November 2017 13:30 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

No one company can solve these issues alone, and it’s not about size, but commitment that will allow us to make an impact in the world

Just over four years ago I joined the Responsible Sourcing team at Walmart. Early in my time with the team, I traveled to Thailand with a group of Walmart colleagues. During the trip, we met with several migrant workers who had been victims of forced labor. This was heartbreaking. These workers — based on the promises of recruiters —left their homes in Myanmar for the promise of work in more prosperous, neighboring Thailand. When they got to Thailand, they found something different — far from the opportunity that they had been promised.  They were working against their will — forced to work. Moments like that remind me why I do what I do — it’s about people and human dignity. Meeting those workers reminded me of that.

Why aren’t companies doing more to address complex social challenges in supply chains? This is a question I’ve heard often in my time with Walmart. The truth is it’s the wrong conversation to be having. Instead, we should be asking how companies, governments, NGOs and civil society can effectively leverage one another’s respective strengths to make a meaningful impact on complex social challenges in the global supply chain; challenges like forced labor. Fundamentally, it comes down to collaboration. No one company can solve these issues alone, and it’s not about size, but commitment that will allow us to make an impact in the world.

With regard to forced labor this is especially true — a cultural, widespread issue with deep roots across the global supply chain cannot be met with the desire to affect change on just one front, it must be a mutual commitment from all stakeholders. In my experience, defining common goals and articulating them clearly — including roles, responsibilities and timelines — are essential to fostering trust that leads to widespread, sustainable change.

Our work in Southeast Asia on forced labor exemplifies how we’ve been able to work with, not parallel to or distinct from, government counterparts. Earlier this year, we met with the highest level of the Thai government, including a deputy prime minister and more than 70 representatives, to press for additional resources to address enforcement on smaller fishing vessels and emphasize responsible recruitment of workers. Our focus is not only about the types of laws that can help protect workers, but also the importance of enforcing those laws.

This is where we’ve been able to rely on the strength of others. Through the Walmart Foundation we have supported a study through International Justice Mission to help the whole industry understand the prevalence of forced labor issues — not just to understand how big the problem is, but also where to look to bring disruption.  The Foundation has also invested in Issara Institute to expand a worker voice hotline and develop the ‘Golden Dreams’ app that will allow Burmese workers to provide reviews of everything from restaurants to labor brokers.

In today’s world, we’re discovering things quickly, often in real time. Workers across the global supply chain now have in their hands the tools necessary to tell their story. As an industry, we either have to embrace that reality and include workers as a key part of finding the solutions to challenges, or ignore it. We want to understand what the stories tell us. Doing so will drive better engagement and more effective collaboration.

When we talk person to person instead of institution to institution, we’ll begin to make progress. I’m reminded of this often when I recall the people I met in Thailand. I believe that as we work through problems together and recognize that no individual or entity alone can solve the kinds of systemic issues we face, we’ll be best positioned to drive the type of change to which we’re all aspiring. With humility we’ll be able to build trust and confidence with one another. And when we do, I think we’ll be surprised at how much we can get done by coming together, trusting each other and by sharing our knowledge and strengths.