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Foreign Trade Association in Brussels convenes ‘Asia Regional Sustainability Symposium’ in Colombo

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Anisha Rajapakse

A high level regional symposium on promoting sustainability in Asia will be held 3-4 October in Colombo by the Foreign Trade Association (FTA) in Brussels, together with several high profile partners and speakers. Daily FT met up with Anisha Rajapakse, Senior Manager, Stakeholder Engagement at the FTA and asked her about the organisation and what the regional event is about.

Q: Can you tell us briefly what the FTA is and what it does:

A: FTA is the largest business association in Europe that has been around for 40 years. We have over 2,000 member companies with a combined turnover in excess of a trillion euro and reach nearly eight million people in the ASEAN region and the Indian subcontinent. Our network has more than 36,000 factories and farms around the world – conducting 15,000 social audits and training over 3,000 people worldwide. What we really focus on is to support companies to promote ethical and sustainable business practices and prevent human rights abuses in their supply chains. To put it simply, we work to make sure that goods coming from factories and farms worldwide are sourced from supply chains where workers and the environment are respected.

Q: What’s your role and focus at the FTA?

A: I lead the work on Stakeholder Engagement from our secretariat in Brussels. We mobilise our broad multi-stakeholder network to engage closely with businesses and leverage its collective strength to develop partnerships and relationships with stakeholders globally. Businesses cannot do it alone and therefore we work collaboratively with trusted partners to tackle complex supply chain issues such as forced labour and migration, child labour and empowerment of female workers in supply chains. The aim is to foster long term partnerships, collaborations and targeted advocacy. The work of the Stakeholder Engagement team is very much focused on translating rhetoric into action especially as it relates to promoting business and human rights and to ensure safe jobs in dignified working conditions. Today, doing good, is good for business. This is an ethical and social imperative, not only an economic requirement.

Q: We have heard of FTA’s BSCI as being a leading supply chain management system. What exactly is it?

A: The Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) created in 2003 by the FTA is a business-driven initiative that supports retailers, importers and brand companies to improve working conditions in factories and farms worldwide. It offers companies, from multinationals to SMEs, one common Code of Conduct and an integrated system towards social compliance in the supply chain. This is applicable to all sectors and sourcing countries. 

Q: What initiatives do you have for environmental sustainability and trade-related issues?

A: We are very active in this space as we also facilitate the Business Environmental Performance Initiative (BEPI) to support improved environmental performance in global supply chains. It actually provides a practical framework that can support all product sectors across the globe to reduce their environmental impact, business risks and costs. I must also add that International Trade Policy (ITP) services to support successful international trade relations. Basically, we respond to the increasing expectations of all stakeholders that companies assume their responsibilities towards society. I should add that we are the only business association that provides international trade policy (ITP) services and support to its members. FTA advocates to ensure that decisions made at the highest European and international policy level represents the members’ interests of international trade and sustainable supply chains. Actually, from Brussels we have supported the efforts of Sri Lanka towards the reinstatement of the GSP+ status through our advocacy and strategic lobbying and were delighted when the reinstatement was formalised this year.

Q: Why is the FTA hosting this regional symposium in Asia?

A: This regional symposium is the first international event of this nature we are convening outside of our headquarters in Brussels and will set the foundation for our international and regional interventions that the FTA would be looking to lead, on an annual basis. For this first regional event, our intention has been to keep it relatively small in terms of participants, and really bring together a multi-stakeholder gathering consisting of the private sector, government, workers’ and employers’ organisations, UN agencies, regional organisations, partners for development, civil society organisations, academia, experts, and other actors to discuss key issues and share learnings that cuts across and are of high relevance to ensuring sustainable supply chains across Asia. FTA Director General, Christian Ewert will also be here as well as our regional representatives from India, Bangladesh and China.

Q: What are the main issues that will be discussed?

A: We have an exciting line-up of speakers as well as participants who will be here to share with us a wealth of knowledge and experience. In many of the sourcing countries in Asia, political changes have been accompanied by a shrinking of public space and voice. Corruption is still prevalent, and conflict, including that generated by political tensions and violent extremism, is on the rise both in South Asia and in parts of South East Asia. All of these can impact on business and global supply chains. Therefore, the main issues we will be addressing are pertinent to the regional and national dynamics in Asia. The main themes include – Enabling a culture of integrity in business; Why Strong Ties Between Government and Business Matter; The Private Sector Role in Strengthening Human Rights; Migrant Workers, Forced Labour and Human Trafficking in Supply Chains; Business Leadership to End Gender Inequalities in Asian Supply Chains; Environmental Sustainability in Asia; and China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative and what it Means to Business. Our main partners are the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), International Labour Organisation (ILO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Office, Thailand, Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka, Ministry for Development Strategies and International Trade, John Keells Holdings, Sri Lanka, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO)

Q: What do you hope to achieve?

A: For us we intend the event to come up with strategic and meaningful shared learnings innovative approaches, strengthen consensus, and at the same time – to get an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. We live in challenging times, and there are many solutions already out there and there really is no need to reinvent the wheel. As a business association we are committed to lead by example – and as such this symposium will look to reinforcing effective ways, that enlists a wider range of stakeholders, to improve respect for human rights and ensure sustainable global supply chains.

Q: How can someone find out more about the Foreign Trade Association?

A: Best would be to go to our website at www.fta-intl.org or write to us at info@fta-intl.org.

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