In this Leadership Series blog, Ben Rutledge looks back 10 years to June 2008 when the UN Human Rights Council unanimously welcomed the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework’, and asks what’s changed in the last decade?
The UN’s Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework marks the first time that a UN body took a substantive policy position on the subject of business and human rights.
Ten years on from that momentous occasion, where are we now? Is the Framework working and how can we tell?
The first point to note is that the Council went on to endorse the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011. The UNGPs provide guidance on how respective parties should operationalise the Protect, Respect and Remedy framework, by clarifying the following responsibilities:
- the State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises;
- the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address the adverse impacts of their activities; and
- the need for greater access to remedy for victims of business‐related abuse, both judicial and non‐judicial.
There is broad acceptance of the UNGPs …
Since 2008 we have seen broad acceptance of the UNGPs as the normative international legal framework regulating business impacts on human rights.
Numerous international and inter-governmental organisations have instituted the UNGPs. For example, we’ve seen the revision of the OECD Guidelines for MNEs and the adoption by OECD members of Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct.
The UNGPs have also been endorsed or adopted by the G7 and G20, the ILO, the UN Global Compact, the International Standards Organisation, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards and the European Union.
National and even provincial governments across the world are developing or implementing legislation or policies requiring companies to conduct mandatory due diligence on human rights, and there has been a proliferation of new corporate non-financial reporting requirements, particularly around business approaches to tackling modern slavery.
Many national governments have or are in the process of developing national action plans on business and human rights, and businesses are openly committing to taking steps to ensure respect for human rights in their supply chains.
Yet, whilst these developments appear positive, do they translate to improved conditions on the ground for workers and communities impacted by business operations?
In a lot of countries ETI focuses on, the evidence suggests not.
… yet workers’ vulnerability is increasing
The complexity and opaqueness of today’s international supply chains, as well as the often-hidden nature of crimes such as modern slavery, make severe abuse very difficult to identify and address.
Likewise, the prevalence of sub-contracting, and the use of intermediaries and sourcing agents as well as third party auditors, means that it is also extremely challenging to hold to account those who benefit most from perpetrating abuse.
Not only that, exploitation is expected to increase. In 2017, about 42% of workers, or 1.4 billion people worldwide, were estimated to be in vulnerable forms of employment. The ILO predicts that this will rise, particularly in emerging economies. And the gender gap remains. Women are more likely to have lower-quality jobs and lower salaries than men.
More specifically, a recent report on Bangladesh – assessing the context five years after the Rana Plaza disaster and published by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights – charts a decline in real wages and an increase in workers’ rights violations since 2013. This is attributed largely to manipulative purchasing practices by brands.
“The hyper-competitive structure of apparel global supply chains has contributed to a buyer-driven sourcing squeeze that has pushed down prices, shortened lead times, and contributed to low wages, health and safety concerns, and violations of freedom of association rights.”
In Cambodia, another critical source of imports for major European apparel brands, working conditions are also deteriorating. The ITUC Global Rights Index listed Cambodia as one of the 10 worst countries in the world to work in due to repressive laws, police violence, intimidation and reprisals against workers who try to assert their rights. Despite this, apparel exports from Cambodia into the EU are increasing.
What’s more, a recent study on the Global Business of Forced Labour, which focused on tea and cocoa supply chains, shows that broad patterns of exploitation can easily spiral into more severe abuse, including forced labour, when coupled with poverty wages. Ethical certification schemes were found to be largely ineffective in combatting this.
If corporate policies, certification standards and auditing processes aren’t working, and conditions on the ground for workers are getting worse, where does that leave us? If the UNGPs are being ‘implemented’, and risks are being mitigated, shouldn't the opposite be true?
The conversation may have shifted …
The UNGPs may not provide an antidote to repressive domestic governance, where workers’ organisations are targeted for example; nor do they prevent exploitative or negligent purchasing practices.
But, they do establish that companies bear a responsibility to ensure respect for human rights throughout their supply chain; and that this includes all entities in its value chain or linked to its business operations, products or services.
This is a crucial principle that is enshrined in the UNGPs; you cannot simply push risk down the supply chain by contracting out manufacturing and oversight responsibilities. As the saying goes, this it is not about how you spend your money, it’s how you make it.
National legal frameworks need to be developed to institute this key principle – that there is a corporate duty of care down supply chains. Governments and inter-governmental bodies need to do much more to facilitate the provision of effective remedy across international borders when serious harm has occurred.
However, the conversation has at least shifted. And for the better.
Domestic and international legal systems are slowly catching up with the consequences of globalisation. The correlation between international supply chains, global governance and inequalities is being scrutinised more intensely than ever.
This will hopefully result, in time, in better working conditions for ordinary people everywhere. Certainly, an increasing number of businesses recognise that they have a vested interest in creating sustainable, equitable supply chains.
As such, the UNGPs have provided much needed clarity on what is expected of businesses in terms of corporate conduct. They have, to a large extent, removed the uncertainty around whether businesses have a role in fulfilling rights.
… but progress must be much quicker
My conclusion is that although progress is being made, it’s just too slow.
A major blockage is because nation states are still not required to regulate the extraterritorial activities of businesses incorporated in their jurisdiction. Unless this changes, we are unlikely to see major gains in the next ten years.
On top of that, business itself has leadership responsibilities. It therefore matters when companies speak out and when they look to improve their impact on the ground – both individually and collectively. It’s consequently good to have seen:
- Business playing a key role in shaping the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Central to this is the crucial role mapped out for the private sector in contributing to sustainable development, through for instance, providing decent work.
- Our members engaging with various different national governments to try and ensure that vulnerable workers are not denied basic legal protections.
Within ETI, we have also established local platforms where workers and their representatives can feed into the development of strategies for responsible business practice. Furthermore, we continue to work with businesses that are open to improving their practices and committed to continuous improvement.
Such commitment needs to be recognised and encouraged and the UNGPs have proven a catalyst for this.
But, there still needs to be a step change in the way that businesses create value chains. There must be a much greater focus on shared value and paying decent wages, rather than maximising short term profit at the expense of workers further down the supply chain.
This is important because trust in government and business is eroding. We are witnessing a political and public backlash against globalisation from both the right and the left. Without business commitment to improved human rights, the lack of decent work for ordinary women and men working in international supply chains provides fuel for such a backlash.
And that will affect everyone – business, investors, workers and consumers.
THE LEADERSHIP SERIES
ETI's Leadership Series of blogs commemorates ETI's 20th Anniversary and links business to human rights. Its aim is to re-affirm the case for ethical trade and encourage a constructive approach within a concept of 'principled pragmatism' as outlined within the UNGPs. Previous blogs in the series include: