FIDH intervention in the UN Working group on business and human rights 5th session

FIDH intervention in the UN Working Group on business and human rights fifth session, regarding "Managing human rights risk in the garment sector supply chain – what lessons learned from the perspective of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights?" (in Geneva, 20 June 2013)

Members of the Working Group, distinguished participants,

(What are key lessons learned in relation to human rights due diligence and implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in complex global supply chains, including with regards to access to remedy for victims?)

The Rana Plaza tragedy comes 2 years after the adoption of the Guiding Principles. This accident, like others before it, could have been prevented if the actors involved had discharged their respective duties to protect and respect human rights within business operations.

The causes are manifold. They include widespread violations of international labour standards and local laws, serious breaches of occupational health and safety standards by local manufacturers, high levels of corruption and dysfunctional institutions, and problematic multinational purchasing practices. The dire situation in the garment industry in Bangladesh has been known for a long time and while an important number of multinational corporations have implemented corporate responsibility programmes to address these issues, this tragedy clearly demonstrates that these social auditing schemes are insufficient. In our view, social auditing although necessary and useful to a certain extent, cannot on its own be equated with fulfillment of a corporation’s responsibility to respect human rights.

In terms of access to remedy, the case of the Rana Plaza highlights the difficulties in bringing all those responsible to account and for victims to obtain redress.

The situation in Bangladesh is critical. There is an imminent risk that multinationals will pull out of the country, as pulling-out might appear to brands to be the easiest solution to reduce the risks to their business and reputation. This could harm the Bangladeshi economy, and have an impact on the human rights of those working today in the garment factories.

(How can the momentum behind the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety be extended to address working conditions in the garment sector globally, and to other sectors with similar challenges?)

Pressure generated by public opinion and civil society organisations in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy can provide momentum for changing the practices of both States and businesses. The UN Working Group has a unique role to play in fine-tuning the understanding of the UN Guiding Principles in the area of global supply chains and setting global expectations regarding due diligence by multinationals sourcing in low income and weak governance countries. A number of brands and retailers have signed up to an Accord on Fire and Safety. This Accord, in addition to safety improvements, has the potential for strengthening trade unions and workers representation. In FIDH’s view, this is an important step. However, this Accord is limited in time and scope and supplementary measures are needed.

Comprehensive human rights due diligence entails full knowledge and close control over global supply chains including subcontractors and second tier suppliers. The lack of control by brands and retailers over production sites is evidence that the measures to prevent adverse human rights impacts have to be implemented with much more substance and reach. Moreover, businesses need to make their purchasing practices consistent with their human rights responsibilities. In practice, for too many businesses, the main incentive for sourcing from a factory remains the price.

With regard to the responsibility of States, although clearly the State of Bangladesh bears the primary responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens, the UN Working Group should take this opportunity to clarify the obligations of the home states of multinational corporations to protect human rights. In particular, the Working Group should encourage increasing transparency and reporting requirements that extend to their entire supply chains, and incorporating into national laws an obligation for companies to conduct due diligence including, again, throughout their entire supply chains .

The legal responsibilities of companies for failing to identify, prevent and address violations of human rights of their subsidiaries and/or those linked to them through a commercial relationship should be strengthened. The justice system in Bangladesh, as well as those of home countries to multinationals, are inadequate to address the full range of responsibilities, and thus to provide redress to victims. The UN Working Group should consider recommending the establishment of a global mechanism allowing victims to join their claims and for all actors to be held accountable as per their respective responsibilities.

Thank you

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