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Business and Human Rights: a system for success

Human Rights are the rights and freedoms which each and every person has regardless of their nationality, age, gender, or religion, from the day they are born. Basic rights include freedom of speech, education, privacy, health, life, liberty and security, as well as an adequate standard of living.

Businesses play an important role in supporting and respecting human rights. Increasing understanding of supply chains, reporting requirements, and regulation mean that this more than just a “nice to have” or a box to check. However, ensuring that all business activity within any given country are completely free of human right abuses isn’t a straightforward process. Success depends on many different actors.

In recent years, international organisations and governments, have set out guidelines and legislation for States and for businesses to implement the frameworks underpinning human rights, notably the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the OECD Guidelines for Multi-national Enterprises and the ILO MNE Declaration. For these to be successfully implemented, meaningful stakeholder participation is important, where both State and non-State actors are engaged regarding business activities, which could or do impact human rights.

Making Human Rights a Reality in Supply Chains The international guidelines and declarations and set out important principles and frameworks for Business and Human Rights. However, putting these into practice in across the world, in different contexts and throughout complicated supply chains is a challenge.

The Sustainable Development Goals set out more concrete targets and indicators relevant to economic development and human rights, where businesses, governments, communities, NGOs, even individuals can all have a role. The United Nations Global Compact has taken an important role in driving private sector awareness and action around human rights and achieving the SDGs.

Recent and upcoming national and regional legislation on due diligence is also an important part of implementing international guidelines to ensure rights are protected and respected. Examples include laws in the Australia, Netherlands, France, and Germany. Of particular note is the proposed EU Directive on Mandatory Human Rights, Environmental and Good Governance Due Diligence, which will require any company doing business in Europe to prevent any harm to human rights throughout their supply chain, including outside of the EU. This is likely to be approved by the EU Parliament in 2022. States and businesseswill then be given some time to adapt and align legislation, policies, and pracitices.

The Business and Human Rights Ecosystem

How can different entities work together to the Business and Human Rights Ecosystem? Below we have highlighted some important roles:

The State’s duty to protect

States, or governments, have a duty, under international human rights law, to ensure that all rights respected, protected and fulfilled for every person in their territory or jurisdiction. This means that governments must take concrete steps, such as making and enforcing laws to keep people safe, investing money in basic services like water and sanitation, education and healthcare, and running programmes targetting groups, such as disabled people or migrants, who may need specific support.

The obligation of the State also includes protecting people from human rights abuses by any third party, including businesses. In terms of human rights abuses related to business activity, the State must take action to prevent, investigate or punish through policies, legislation, regulations or adjudication.

Under UN Guiding Principle II, States must also set out clear expectations for businesses to respect human rights in all operations. Though States do not have a formal obligation to regulate business headquartered in their country on activities abroad, there are strong policy reasons for governments to extend this expectation so that businesses respect human rights abroad. This is within the scope of the UNGPs and is recommended by Human Rights Treaty Bodies. This means that Governments are encouraged not to stop human rights requirements at their borders. We are seeing this in practice in the national and regional due diligence requirements mentioned above.

What does this mean for child labour?

Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, States have obligations regarding the impact of the business sector on children’s rights. Universally ratified ILO Covention 182 emphasizes that States shall take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency. Under this ILO Convention, States must design and imprement programmes of action to eliminate child labour. This includes National Action Plans for the Elimination of Child Labour, as can be found for example in Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda amongst many others. Programmes and objectives in the National Plans should be designed and implemented in consultation with relevant government institutions and employers' and workers' organizations, taking into consideration the views of other concerned groups as appropriate. Both ILO C182 and ILO Convention 138 on Minimum age of employment require States to develop a list of hazardous work which no child under the age of 18 should under take, even if they are above the minimum legal working age.

"Child labour is an immensely complex issue. It cannot be made to disappear simply by the stroke of a pen." As well as legislation, States must work with employers' and workers' organisations to ensure that measures the measures outlined in international and national policy are implemented effectively, and take into accout the ever-evolving socioeconomic factors which could drive child labour.

Businesses’ responsibility to respect

“So – please remember this core concept –‘Business and Human Rights’, or BHR, is about business doing no harm – this is respect for human rights.” Anita Ramasastry, Chairperson of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, 2020

Businesses can impact human rights through their own activities, those of their subsidiaries or through other business relations. Human rights abuses linked to business activities can include child labour, forced labour, poor safety, causing harm to people’s health, or environmental pollution.

Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights and are expected to address any adverse impacts in which they may have been involved. Some steps which could be taken by companies to prevent, mitigate, or remedy human rights abuses in their supply chains include:

    1. Strong policies -- Policies, such as a code of conduct, which embed the responsibility to protect human rights in a business's professional culture and operations
    1. A right-based approach to risk assessment -- Conduct risk assessments on risks to human rights. The UN Guiding Principles highlight that businesses should prioritise human rights risks based on their severity, grave, or how widespread they are.
    1. Prevent and reduce risks -- Once human rights risks have been identified, the business should consider mechanisms to prevent and reduce potential harm.
    1. Remediate human rights abuses -- Companies must monitor activities throughout supply chains should make sure that there are accessible processes in place for them to receive complaints. Where human rights abuses are found they must be addressed and remediated.
    1. Multi-stakeholder approaches are more sustainable -- Businesses should engage with stakeholders to help identify risks, take effective action, evaluate effectiveness in prevention and remediation. Through social dialogue, meaning consultations between Unions and/or workers organisations, the Government, and the companies, employees which can result in fairer renumeration, safer working conditions, social protection, and more equal opportunities.

In terms of what this means for child labour, companies can take action by improving the awareness of employers and employers as to what constitutues child labour and it's consequences; when child labour is identified they must refer the children to the relevant social services to remove the child from dangerous work, and support the parents to send their child to school; companies also have a duty to continue to monitor the situation, contexts can change rapidly for communities and crises like natural disasters, unrest or conflict, mass migration, or even a pandemic could push millions more children into child labour at any point.

Working with other industries, civil society and the Government to coordinate action to tackle child labour avoids duplication of work, prevents chidren from falling back into child labour, and means that interventions can reach many more children bringing long-lasting change for families.

For more information on precise steps that the private sector can take to protect children from child labour in their supply chains, read more from the UN Global Compact here.

Unions, workers’ associations and employees: access to remedy

Stakeholder consultation is the cornerstone of empowering workers to speak up and voice their concerns about human rights violations in the workplace. When Unions, workers’ associations, and other non-state actors are left out of consultations, human rights abuses in the workplace can fall through the cracks, and remedies may not be effective. In addition, certain rights-holder groups, like children and Indigenous Peoples, have specific rights to consultation and consent.

Consultations between trade unions, employers, and the government can often result in collective bargaining which can contribute to better social protection, better working conditions, and occupational health and safety, and therefore create more decent work opportunities.

“A failure to manage social risks (…) could negatively impact a company’s share price, brand value and operational performance.” Companies can face a significant reputation risk if it is suspected that the human rights of the workers are not respected in their supply chains, this can negatively impact on investments, brand value and operational performance due to increase staff turnover.

The result of investment in better working conditions where human rights are respected and valued is simple its economic and social development.