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Corporate obligation to protect human rights

British retailers (Primark, Asda, Tesco) have been yet again accused of violating fundamental human rights standards. The NGO War on Want has recently published comprehensive report ‘Fashion II‘ on labour rights standards in garment industry in Bangladesh. The report alleges that ‘workers producing clothes for Primark face growing poverty on as little as 7p an hour for up to 80-hour weeks.’ The report further notes that ‘workers have explained that management and the police coordinate their actions to stifle any labour protests. Nazera, who works in a factory producing clothes for Asda and Tesco, told War on Want’s team that: If workers try to organise themselves or form a trade union, management call the police to punish them or file false cases against the workers.’ All in all, raises a number of serious allegations against three transantional corporations.

It follows that every corporation, particularly transnational corporations, have obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. Obligation to respect or not do any harm is not so controversial. But corporations have also obligation to protect, which means that they have to ensure that also third parties (their suppliers, contractors and other business partners) do not violate human rights. What is more, corporations themselves recognize themselves that they have obligations in this respect. In other words, corporations must ensure that human rights are observed throughout their supply chain. For example, see the following responses to War on Want recent report. Primark noted in this respect that:

‘In Bangladesh we continually audit our suppliers. These audits are often unannounced and always paid for by Primark … we have also started a programme of direct engagement with workers and junior management to ensure that they are aware of our commitment to them and to continual improvement. Our customers can continue to shop in Primark secure in the knowledge that the company works hard to ensure that high standards are met.’

Asda observed that:

“We are working directly with factory owners to create more sustainable businesses by improving factory conditions, improving efficiency in production techniques and therefore reducing working hours and aligning worker pay with these improvements in productivity … we would welcome the opportunity to work with War on Want to identify any issues and formulate a structured plan to help resolve this.”

Nonetheless, the transnational corporations must do a better job in ensuring that fundamental human rights are not violated by their suppliers or contractors.

6 Comments

  1. joshua joshua 9 December 2008

    Question: Whether or not the corporation in this case recognize that they have an obligation to protect through public statements, mission statements, press releases, etc. on what grounds does a corporation have an obligation to protect (and ensure that third parties also protect) human rights? Is it based on ICJ precedents, UN treaty? I am a bit new to this and was hoping for some clarity, since this seems to be strongest way of making the argument that every corporation operating in every developing country has the same responsibility. Thanks.

  2. jernejl jernejl Post author | 15 December 2008

    Joshua, maybe try to look beyond/beneath international level in looking for sources of this particular corporate obligation. Jernej

  3. Amy Amy 26 March 2009

    The UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights recently has stated that companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, or “do no harm,” which often requires significant positive steps in terms of company policy and practice. He has not said that there is a corporate duty to protect and fulfill rights. There is no source of international law that creates any such duties.
    See The UN SRSG’s 2008 report, which you can find on his webpage:
    http://www.business-humanrights.org/Gettingstarted/UNSpecialRepresentative

  4. Jernej Černič Jernej Černič Post author | 27 March 2009

    Amy,
    Opinions differ on this topic. Authors have argued that corporations not only have obligation to respect human rights, but also to protect and fulfill them. You say there is no source of international law that creates any such duties. Be it as it may, international law has never been the only source of corporate human rights obligations. Even more so, international has always been only subsidiary source of corporate obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

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