Human rights defenders, civic space and the links to modern slavery

Bangladesh Shipbuilders ©ILO

The right to freedom of association and freedom of expression are central to combatting modern slavery and child labour. If the fight against these challenges is to be successful, trade unionists and other human rights defenders need to be at the forefront of the battle – as we made clear in our submission to a UN Business and Human Rights Working Group investigation into the role of human rights defenders.

New figures presented last week by the ILO on modern slavery and child labour highlighted the true scale of the modern slavery crisis.

Of the 25 million people working under conditions of forced labour, 16 million work in the private sector in areas such as domestic work, construction and agriculture (the remainder are victims of sexual exploitation or forced labour imposed by state authorities). Women and girls are disproportionately affected.

In response, the Prime Minister Theresa May hosted an event on tackling modern slavery at the UN General Assembly. During it, she stressed that ‘modern slavery exists in all our societies and that it respects neither borders nor jurisdictions’.

Poverty and lack of access to decent work are commonly cited as major underlying causes of forced and child labour.

But we also know that corporate practices can contribute to the problem.

And it is not just the constant drive for ever lower prices and shorter lead times – or even the shift to sub-contracting – that powers this.

Targeting human rights defenders

The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights reported earlier this year that there are increasing records of killings, attacks, threats and harassment against human rights defenders –HRDs – who speak up against business-related human rights abuses.

Suppression of these voices will undermine the ability to assess whether business activities and relationships have adverse impacts, and may ultimately have negative impacts on business operations later down the line. 

ETI regards the right to freedom of peaceful assembly as a pre-requisite to the effective protection of labour rights and mature industrial relations.

That’s why we encourage our corporate members to engage with unions, NGOs and other HRDs to mitigate the risk of modern slavery and child labour occurring in their supply chains.

This is a critical component of responsible business conduct.

Our submission to the UN

Recently, the UN Working Group called for information to inform its efforts in developing guidance on the role of the private sector in relation to HRDs and preserving civic space.

In response, ETI submitted recommendations as well as reflections on our work with members responding to attacks on HRDs. This submission is part of our wider work on encouraging and facilitating the implementation of the UNGPs.

In our submission to the Working Group, we said that:

  • The rights of HRDs to exercise freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, as an individual and in association with others, must be factored into businesses’ ongoing human rights due diligence processes.
  • Companies should adopt specific public policies demonstrating support for freedom of association in their operations and supply chains. 
  • Where HRDs are targeted or attacked in response to their work on tackling corporate abuse, companies should adopt a clear, consistent and principled position, setting out that such conduct is unacceptable.
  • Company commitments to respect human rights, to prevent and mitigate harm to workers and HRDs should be seen as a necessary part of a business’ social licence to operate.
  • Investors should include assessment of businesses’ respect for human rights, including freedom of association, and corporate responsibilities in decision-making processes.

We also provided examples of where ETI has engaged in advocacy related to the protection of HRDs.

This included our recent support for the 43 dock workers who were unfairly dismissed for engaging in union activities at the port of Toamasina in Madagascar.

We highlighted ETI member action over Thailand’s use of criminal defamation laws to prosecute HRDs.

And we spoke about our work in Cambodia relating to the arrest and abuse of trade union members for their involvement in industrial action, as well as advocacy related to the development of Cambodia’s Trade Union Law.

Companies working together

Where individual companies lack sufficient leverage to engage in advocacy, we invite our members to work together to develop leverage to prevent further harm and to ensure remedy is provided.

This is at the heart of what we do.

Responses to attacks on HRD’s need to be designed through a human rights lens, with attention focused on people who are particularly at risk, factoring in a gender perspective. The examples demonstrate the value of working collaboratively aligning efforts with the views and needs of local stakeholders and the HRDs being targeted.

ETI underlined that it is in the long-term interest of responsible business actors to ensure respect for HRDs who speak up about potential or actual negative business impacts.

Without this channel of communication, workers who have serious grievances lose the channels they would normally use to raise concerns around human rights abuses.

And this can lead to crimes such as forced labour going undetected or unreported.  

Assessing risk

Broad, stakeholder consultations form a key part of assessing actual and potential risks and developing appropriate mitigation strategies.

Attacks on HRDs undermine local union and NGOs’ ability to contribute to these processes and ultimately harm a company’s chances of discovering potential issues in their supply chain.

The UN Working Group has pledged to develop guidance for business on engaging, respecting and supporting HRDs and preserving civic space, and to help identify and support opportunities for collective action.

We look forward to engaging in this process going forward.

For information on implementing the UNGPs and conducting Human Rights Due Diligence, see ETI’s Human Rights Due Diligence Framework which serves as a guide for companies to help manage and mitigate labour rights risks, and to understand why engagement, negotiation and collaboration are the best way to succeed. And read ETI's recommendations to the UN Working Group in full here.

ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.