The comments are in and workers around the world await the unveiling in May of the U.N. Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the U.N. Human Rights Council. The question is: Should they care? Trade unions in the United Kingdom and around the world believe they should because the new guiding principles should make a significant contribution to the movement toward “just jobs.”
At the end of January, the deadline closed for input from civil society groups, businesses, and governments to these proposed guiding principles. In May, the U.N. Human Rights Council is likely to warmly endorse the new U.N. Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Six years in the making, this work by U.N. Special Representative John Ruggie aims to tackle the problem of corporate-related human rights abuse.
But is it just another set of U.N.-endorsed words? Or will it actually help deliver a just job—complete with labor rights, appropriate compensation, social protections such as health care and pensions, and opportunities for economic mobility—for a corner store clerk in Detroit or a rag picker in Dakar? The global trade union movement believes it can make a contribution.
For Ruggie, a human rights and international affairs professor at Harvard University, the scope and impact of business has vastly outgrown the ability of societies to manage their adverse consequences. To fix these so-called “governance gaps” of globalization that cause business-related human rights abuses, Ruggie proposes three “pillars” to guide action:
- The state duty to protect workers
- The business responsibility to respect workers
- Access to remedy for workers who are victims of corporate abuse
His recently released draft, “Guiding Principles,” is 29 recommendations putting more flesh on these bones.
Ruggie’s proposal for business is simple: They should seek to understand the consequences of their actions on the human rights of workers and then remedy them through a continual process he calls “human rights due diligence.” The concept is helpful not just for clarifying what it means to be a responsible business but also for holding businesses accountable for their impact on workers beyond their immediate workforce.
This is critical for workers. As business operations and their supply chains become more complex, workers are increasingly falling outside of direct and permanent employment relationships that are protected by labor laws into jobs that are more insecure, low paid, and dangerous. They are a key part of the 1.5 billion workers—just more than half of the global labor force—who are now in vulnerable forms of employment, according to this year’s ILO Global Employment Trends report.
Under Ruggie’s proposed due-diligence test, the fact that, say, a luxury clothing brand may not have a Delhi home worker on the payroll is irrelevant. If their sourcing contracts are denying her a living wage or resulting in unsafe working conditions, then they need to act.
Amnesty International and six other human rights and labor rights groups argue that this test is all very well, but without the United Nations’ forthcoming guiding principles requiring governments to compel businesses to conduct due diligence, it will just be words, words, words. Ruggie, however, is a studied realist who knows that if the new guiding principles compel governments to act, then they would shelve the idea quicker than you can say “U.N. Norms.” So the chances are the final set of guiding principles will not include mandatory government action.
Trade unions recognize this unfortunate reality. We understand that work instead needs to be done to insert these guiding principles on business and human rights into treaties, contracts, and standards—work that has already had some success. Ruggie’s final set of guidelines should provide the scaffolding for newer forms of human rights global governance to be built around. It is up to civil society, governments, and yes, businesses, to complete the picture.
Of course, the guiding principles can be improved between now and May. Some definitions need fine tuning and someone needs to take a red pen to the unhelpful management-speak that’s in the draft guidelines. And the final guiding principles should better reflect how human rights at work are usually secured and promoted—through the workforce advancing collective bargaining.
The principles should promote company-level grievance mechanisms, which certainly have a role to play, but it is only a small part of the picture. Can you imagine a garment worker in Bangladesh being granted a living wage because she stuck a piece of paper in the staff canteen complaints box? Chances are she’d get sacked, or if lucky, just ignored. And the local courts certainly aren’t going to help. So the principles need to recognize and support the role of collective bargaining and the positive open attitude that businesses should be taking towards it.
Ben Moxham is an international policy officer at the Trades Union Congress in the United Kingdom and contributed to the global trade union movement’s submission to the U.N. guiding principles on business and human rights. The British Trades Union Congress is a member of the International Trade Union Confederation. Moxham contributed this column to the Just Jobs webpage at the Center for American Progress.