A binding international convention to defend human rights in global supply chains should be developed, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In a report the organisation said around 450m people work in global supply chains, with businesses’ supply chains becoming increasingly complex and spanning multiple countries.
However, governments often fail to protect human rights through effective regulation of business activity, domestically and abroad, HRW said. It has also found that many businesses’ insufficient human rights due diligence allow abuses to proliferate.
The report, Human Rights in Supply Chains: A Call for a Binding Global Standard on Due Diligence, has been released as governments, employers and workers from around the world meet in Geneva for the 2016 International Labour Conference to discuss how to ensure “decent work” in global supply chains.
The report draws on two decades of HRW research on child labour and other labour rights abuses, environmental damage, and violations of the rights to health, land, food, and water, in the context of global supply chains.
It highlights human rights violations in global supply chains, such as labour rights abuses and anti-union tactics against factory workers producing branded apparel and footwear for consumers worldwide.
Other issues identified include child labour in farms growing tobacco purchased by international cigarette manufacturers, severe labour rights abuses against migrant workers in the construction sector and deadly accidents killing artisanal miners digging gold that is destined for the global market.
HRW said delegates at the conference should pave the way for a new, binding convention where governments would require companies to have human rights safeguards, or “due diligence”, in place throughout their global supply chains.
The organisation said companies had a responsibility to carry out effective human rights due diligence, which included an objective assessment of a company’s human rights risks and steps to mitigate or avoid those risks.
Companies also had a responsibility to help ensure that people who do suffer human rights abuses can access appropriate remedies.
It added that in countries where law and regulation made human rights due diligence mandatory, companies had been spurred into positive action.
Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at HRW, said relying on voluntary standards was insufficient.
“Millions of people around the world suffer human rights abuses because of businesses’ poor practices and lax government regulation,” she said. “Legally binding rules are the only realistic way to ensure that companies don’t exploit workers or contribute to labour abuses.
“Voluntary standards on human rights and business are not enough. Some companies embrace them, but others don’t care and ignore their human rights responsibilities. The International Labour Conference is a unique opportunity to change this ineffective laissez-faire system.”
HRW said the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a non-binding international standard that elaborates on the human rights responsibilities of businesses, was a useful framework to guide the conduct of responsible businesses, but was voluntary.
It called for a new, international, standard on human rights due diligence in global supply chains that should draw on the UN Guiding Principles but was legally binding.
“The Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 showed the terrible consequences of poor regulation and enforcement of labour laws,” Kippenberg said. “It’s clear that a binding standard on human rights in supply chains globally is needed to ensure that businesses live up to their human rights responsibilities.”