As employers and providers of goods and services, corporations are part of the daily lives of millions of workers and consumers across the world. While globalization has brought increased profits to corporations and made a wide range of products available to consumers at lower prices, it has also increased the pressure on corporations and suppliers to reduce costs and increase their flexibility in order to remain competitive.
Some suppliers have achieved this ‘competitive advantage’ by exploiting workers, violating the human rights of their employees and breaching national and international labour standards. Forced labour, child labour, debt bondage and human trafficking have been found time and again in the supply chains of global brands. Excessive working hours, wages below the statutory minimum, wage manipulation and inadequate health and safety measures are widespread in a number of industries.
Whilst efforts have been made to improve compliance with labour and human rights through Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives such as codes of conduct, these non-binding, voluntary schemes have proved insufficient to ensure that companies respect minimum labour standards throughout their supply chains. Promoting transparency and building accountability through the development and enforcement of strong legal and regulatory frameworks is therefore central to effectively addressing labour exploitation in complex global supply chains.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies are expected not only to ‘avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities’, but also to address and prevent ‘human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts’. States also have an obligation to ensure an adequate legal framework regulating business and corporate activity in line with international human rights legislation, and furthermore, to enforce these provisions effectively. Yet currently corporations are rarely held liable for human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of labour exploitation.
Improving accountability relies on State and private actors, as well as the advocates who hold them to account, having awareness and understanding of their respective obligations. Knowledge is therefore the key to accountability for labour exploitation, and the Labour Exploitation Accountability Hub seeks to provide this knowledge.