From the TUC

Recognise unions in supply chains, says Parliamentary committee

05 Apr 2017, by in International

Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights calls for trade union recognition in supply chains in its recommendations on Business and Human Rights

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has proposed government action to oblige UK-based companies to ensure recognition of trade unions before they sign contracts with suppliers, alongside a stronger legal duty on employers to prevent human rights abuse in their operations.

“We welcome the proposal that there should be stronger requirements on trade union recognition, including in businesses’ supply chains. The government should work with trade unions to crack down on businesses behaving badly.

“We hope the government will respond positively to the committee’s proposals. Good business need better protection against unfair competition from companies that mistreat UK staff, or turn a blind eye to slavery and abuse in foreign supply chains.” Frances O’Grady

The recommendation, which comes with a suite of others in a wide-ranging report on Human Rights and Business released today, would – if implemented – transform rights for workers around the world denied access to support to protect themselves from long hours, low pay, deadly health & safety conditions and other abuses in the workplace.

The Joint Committee (joint because it spans the Houses of both Lords and Commons chaired by Harriet Harman MP) launched its enquiry last year, taking written evidence before conducting a series of interviews with interested parties, from business, government, NGOs and unions in order to assess the government’s progress on business and human rights, particularly its implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), supply chain transparency and access to remedy.

The TUC’s view, widely echoed by other witnesses, was that while it is indeed a wonderful thing that the UK has both the first ever National Action Plan for delivering the UNGPs and the first ever update of the same, that’s not quite the same as being the best. For us, the paucity of references to the role of trade unions in protecting the rights of workers was frustrating, especially given their recognition in the UNGPs.

So the fact that the Joint Committee not only recommends engagement with unions as a way to protect workers, but suggests that the government take action to push UK companies to respect freedom of association in their supply chains as a way to improve protection, transparency and monitoring is very welcome indeed, and we hope the government is listening carefully.

It will have helped that the TUC’s description of auditing as a deeply flawed and inadequate way of protecting workers clearly hit home. The report quotes:

“Owen Tudor [of the TUC] gave the example of Rana Plaza, the factory in Bangladesh in which over 1,000 people were killed in 2013. He said that the factory “had been audited by several companies and found to be perfectly okay”. Despite this, he said, “we have also seen a major increase in the amount of industry auditing that is going on. Multinational companies are spending enormous amounts of money on auditing. They accept that it does not work, but it persuades some of their customers that they are doing something about it.””

Also welcome is the toughening of language with regard to employers’ responsibilities over what happens to workers in their supply chains. The UNGPs, overall an excellent statement of what various parties should be doing to protect human rights, describes the employers’ responsibility to “respect” rights and avoid causing harm. This creates semantic wiggle room for employers organisations like the International Organisation of Employers, who use the language to refute attempts to put more specific responsibilities on their members (for example at last year’s Global Supply Chain debate at the International Labour Conference). The Joint Committee, however, calls for government to “bring forward legislation to impose a duty on all companies to prevent human rights abuse”, and create an offence of “failure to prevent human rights abuse for all companies,” simultaneously toughening the language and creating real consequences for employers who are trying to avoid doing the right thing. The report singles out the Modern Slavery Act, the valuable but tentative first step brought in to combat forced labour, as the potential means to do this, introducing sanctions to enforce it and extending its remit to other abuses of human rights by business.

Unions, of course, are valuable partners for businesses that are taking their responsibilities seriously. As the committee recognises, a trade union presence is a far better guarantee of human rights than predicable and sporadic auditing inspections.

What the Committee doesn’t recommend, however, is any support from DFID to help unions in UK companies’ supply chains fulfil that role. Funding for trade unions in the global south is a glaring omission from the government’s current aid strategy, and a reminder to them of the trade union track record in protecting human rights and democracy would have been very welcome.

On the other hand, welcome funding calls are made for the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (currently dealing with a 2000% increase in its remit on the back of a 56% increase in funding) and the UK National Contact Point, the body which investigates complaints made under the terms of the OECD Guidance for Multinational Enterprises. In the GLAA’s case the Joint Committee also called for it to have an extended remit to issue licenses for the construction industry; this is welcome, but TUC believes there is a strong case for extending the GLA’s remit even further so that new sectors such as social care and hospitality also come within the licensing scheme. Amongst the evidence collected by the Joint Committee there were calls from employer representatives for a level playing field for good businesses, with licensing one means of providing that.

The call for freedom of association in supply chains (essentially guaranteed by ILO conventions) shouldn’t be controversial. It is the primary means by which members of the Ethical Trading Initiative seek to protect workers in their supply chains. These companies are also seeking a level playing field, to protect the good from competition from the bad, and some form of compulsion from the government would go some way towards doing that.