In 2018, we must end worker abuse with binding rules on corporate supply chains

In 2018, we must end worker abuse with binding rules on corporate supply chains

About 94 per cent of workers producing goods and providing services to the largest global multinationals are not directly employed.


People all over the world understand that you’ll never get multinationals to put an end to the abuse of workers in supply chains without new international rules. People also know that those rules need to have teeth to make them effective. So why are workers in supply chains still lacking this protection?

The 2017 ITUC Global Poll found that 71 per cent of the global population favours rules that would stop big business from outsourcing its responsibilities towards their employees through supply chains that they are often unable or unwilling to identify.

About 94 per cent of workers producing goods and providing services to the largest global multinationals are not directly employed. Instead, multinationals operate through contractual relationships within a non-transparent network of suppliers.

This makes them immune from legal accountability, as there is often no legal cause for action when violations occur in supplying companies.

At the same time, workers are also often impeded from seeking justice against local companies, which are often under-resourced, thus making them effectively judgment-proof.

Moreover, multinationals tend to prefer business relationships in countries with low wages, weak labour laws and ineffective judicial systems. Trade unions fighting to improve conditions in these countries are up against foreign chambers of commerce blocking minimum living wages or regulations designed to ensure safe and secure work.

Hiding behind supply chains

The international trade union movement has been pushing the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations (UN) to adopt binding international standards to crack down on corporate impunity throughout supply chains.

As a result, the 2016 International Labour Conference called on the ILO to consider developing policy guidance and standard-setting in order tackle the lack of decent work in supply chains.

In June 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 26/9 establishing an intergovernmental working group. Its task is to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

The working group met for a third time this October to discuss elements for a draft legally binding instrument.

Despite these promising developments and the overwhelming support of citizens globally, the opposition to tackling the legal obstacles preventing corporate accountability remains massive.

Unsurprisingly, business is strongly opposed to binding rules, which would ensure that their actions no longer fall through the legal cracks.

Ironically, they argue that the adoption of binding international instruments would undermine existing non-binding frameworks, such as the UN Guiding Principles. Leading academic and chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Surya Deva, has described this argument as a “false dichotomy”.

Indeed, while it is important that a future binding instrument builds on and complements existing standards, including the UN Guiding Principles, there is absolutely no contradiction in supporting binding instruments as well as guidance on the practical implementation of existing standards.

These instruments have the same objective: Ensuring that businesses respect their human rights obligations. Business must therefore stop hiding behind its alleged concern for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles.

2018 objectives: end impunity, close the gap

The status quo is not acceptable for the millions of workers who suffer daily abuse and effectively have no access to justice.

That’s why governments must take action now to implement the UN Guiding Principles in their national contexts and support the process for the adoption of a binding treaty proposed by the chair of the intergovernmental working group in its last session.

In 2018, we expect to see a zero-draft text of treaty with substantive inputs from all governments throughout the consultation process.

The trade unions will call for the following elements to be included in the draft text:

(1) Coverage of international human rights law, including international labour standards.
(2) State obligation to adopt regulatory measures to:
-  Require businesses to adopt and apply human rights due diligence policies and procedures;
-  Ensure access to effective judicial recourse for victims of human rights violations; and
-  Provide for parent-based extraterritorial jurisdiction.
(3) Business obligation to respect human rights throughout their operations.
(4) Strong international enforcement mechanism.

The time has come to close this major gap in international human rights law and to end the impunity for corporate human rights abuses. As the ITUC Global Poll shows, a chastened world has gotten wise to the excuses of multinationals and wants action.