Party time: 2 years Living Wage Lab 18/01/2018

Two years ago Fairfood launched the Living Wage Lab, together with partner Hivos. In the Living Wage Lab stakeholders from the foodsector come together to find solutions to achieve living wages in their supply chains. How we do this, you can read in this interview with Anna Lentink (Fairfood) and Kristina Ullrich (Hivos).

Text Hans van 

The awareness of living wages has, without doubt, increased among a wide range of stakeholders in the past few years. Achieving real change has, however, proved to be a difficult job. Low wages are a persistent problem in many global value chains, and cannot be solved by individual companies alone. Hivos and Fairfood decided to bring together Netherlands- based stakeholders to develop and experiment with innovative ways to realise decent wages. Why did they choose this specific Lab approach?

‘For Hivos, a living wage has been a top priority for some years’, says Kristina Ullrich, who works at the NGO as private sector advocacy officer. ‘We’ve asked True Price to develop a business case for a living wage in the Kenyan flower sector, for growers and retail. When we noticed that Fairfood was busy with the same theme, focusing on food, we decided to collaborate. Originally, we thought of a think tank with stakeholders to consider solutions to realise a living wage in the agri-food sector. We had doubts as to whether this would work, because it would involve too much talk and not enough action. We mainly wanted to bring stakeholders together to really do something, and so the idea of the Lab came about. That offers the space to try things out.’

 

"If farmers and workers in developing countries have a better income, they can take care of themselves, and philanthropic projects are not necessary."

‘The Lab’s action-oriented approach works well for Fairfood,’ adds Anna Lentink, Living Wage & Livelihood expert. ‘We prefer experimenting and doing to hanging around and talking. Our proposition is that fairer distribution of value in production chains is the core of poverty alleviation. If farmers and workers in developing countries have a better income, they can take care of themselves, and philanthropic projects are not necessary.’

‘Living wages is a complex subject’, says Ullrich, ‘and that’s why the Lab works so well. To make progress, you need many different stakeholders, often including people who do not know or appreciate each other. The lab offers them a safe environment, which creates space for action. It’s a good model for complicated problems where a clear solution is not obvious.

But how do two action-oriented NGOs succeed in bringing such different parties to the table?

Ullrich: ‘We are action-oriented, but we don’t pretend to have a ready-made solution. We work together with participants at the table to find out what is needed to move towards living wages, and to share the steps and solutions. That’s what you need to do before you can take action.’

Lentink: ‘I think we have found a good mix between exchanging knowledge, networking, meeting the right people, providing the right tools to get involved, and interactive teamwork. That works in a very inspiring way.’

The Lab has been running for two years. What does the future look like?

Ullrich: ‘When we started, we thought it would last for a year, but we needed more time to build an atmosphere of trust, and to gain more knowledge. This year, we really made progress as you can see in the chapter Pilots & good practices. The pursuit of living wages must be rooted in the supply chains of companies. They must include it in their policies, and also have the means to get started.’

 

"We are currently working on sourcing practices, so that retailers can affect things, no matter how far they are away from the start of the chain."

Lentink: ‘We want to go in an even more practical direction by developing a number of digital tools that help companies to get started. We will also change our way of working somewhat. In addition to broad meetings, core groups will get the chance to focus on specific themes that are constantly recurring: How do margin escalations work in the agri-food sector? What does a living wage mean in terms of costs? What is the consumer’s role? These issues can be elaborated further in the groups before being discussed again in the plenary. In this way we hope to deepen, as well as widen understanding.’

Ullrich: ‘New topics are also being added. We are currently working on sourcing practices, so that retailers can affect things, no matter how far they are away from the start of the chain. We want to build on that, but the idea of the lab is that ultimately everyone takes responsibility. We have knowledge and can facilitate well, but we are also pleased to see new initiatives. The intention was always for the Lab to enable participating stakeholders to take the next steps.’