Reflections: Business and Human Rights Symposium @Eversheds @ioevoice

Last week I had the pleasure of attending an excellent symposium organised by the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) and the law firm Eversheds on business and human rights. I enjoy attending events like this, especially when they address such a broad range of topics, as it is a welcome chance to take stock of the field. In doing so, several central themes emerged over the course of the day that encapsulate the current state of play in the business and human rights arena. This post will elaborate on one of these themes: the importance of collaboration.

The symposium opened with a panel discussion on the UK Modern Slavery Act, an unsurprising choice considering that businesses with a year-end of 31 March 2016 are the first businesses required to publish a statement under the transparency provision, meaning that these statements are now starting to roll in.

It is now more or less accepted that all companies come across slavery somewhere in their supply chain. Despite this, it remains very hard to root out. It most often occurs in the lower tiers of the supply chain, where a brand’s visibility and leverage are dissipated. The lack of visibility requires companies to work together with local NGOs and other experts to identify the risk of slavery in these lower tiers. As one NGO representative put it, businesses need to get used to talking to “awkward” people from NGOs, and vice-versa. Though they may seem strange bedfellows, this kind of collaboration has been successfully test-driven for years by the partnership between Oxfam and Unilever in which the company flung open its doors to the NGO to help identify human rights issues in its own operations as well as those of its suppliers. Both organisations are routinely lauded for being leaders in their respective fields.

Once the risk of slavery has been identified, companies need to work together to address it, as individual companies do not have sufficient leverage to effect change. The Modern Slavery Act contributes to this model by putting pressure on companies to share what they are doing, facilitating collaboration to root out slavery. An effective example of this B2B collaboration has taken place in the Thai fishing industry, as brands including Tesco and Walmart have come together to work with the Thai government and other stakeholders to address the widely reported problem. It was also suggested that businesses might wish to work together with local NGOs in order to identify credible labour agents, as it is in everyone’s best interested to root out the traffickers from the legitimate recruiters. This struck me as an imminently sensible idea, since I too have advised companies in other sectors that struggle with the lack of transparency in their temporary labour force recruitment processes.

The other essential sort of collaboration is between business functions. If a company is doing good due diligence on its operations as a whole in the course of doing business, there may not be a need to re-invent the wheel for human rights reports.  That baseline work is creating data that should be used across reporting requirements; it just requires collaboration between different parts of the business.

Although everyone seems to agree that collaboration is a good thing, there are still large gaps where further progress is needed. The best example of this is the fact that there is no central repository or registry for statements made under the Modern Slavery Act. This limits the accessibility of the reports, impinging on the central aim of the legislation of encouraging transparency. Companies and NGOs alike lack the resources to trawl through a vast number of websites searching for problems on which they could collaborate. The UK government could play a useful convening role to facilitate cooperation between businesses and civil society on modern slavery issues.

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