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The case for human rights due diligence laws in the United Kingdom

This portal brings together the latest facts, statistics and case studies to make the argument for a human rights and environmental due diligence law in the UK.

Using recent research from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and diverse partners and allies, it paints a picture of persistent rights abuses linked to UK companies operating both in the UK and around the world, and in sectors ranging from mining to agriculture to garments. When companies cause harm it is workers, communities and ecosystems, often in the Global South, which end up paying the price. 

The evidence and analysis below demonstrates the urgent need for a UK law to strengthen the protection of people and the environment. A 'Business, Human Rights and Environment Act' would provide a level playing field for more responsible businesses at risk of being undercut by unscrupulous competitors. It would harmonise the UK with emerging regulation internationally, as well as implementing the 'smart mix' of voluntary and regulatory action defined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to which the UK is a signatory.

The call for a new law is supported by broad, growing movement of civil society groups, businesses and investors.

Tom Fisk

The problem

Research from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and other groups around the world has begun to expose the extent of human rights abuse and environmental destruction linked to UK companies.

An exhaustive picture is not possible: many UK companies have a global presence and complex supply chains, while victims face numerous obstacles which often prevent them reporting abuse. Sometimes an abuse is directly perpetrated by a UK company, but more frequently it may occur via a subsidiary, supplier or contractor, often in response to UK companies demanding unreasonably low prices or fast delivery times. Various initiatives to increase corporate transparency when it comes to human rights have not succeeded in placing relevant information in the public domain. Despite these barriers, what evidence is available demonstrates the severity and range of human rights and environmental abuses linked to UK companies.

  • We tracked 129 attacks on human rights defenders connected to UK business activity between 2015 and July 2022.
  • Widespread reports of gender-based violence and harassment in Indian garment factories supplying UK brands.
  • 65 complaints made to the UK National Contact Point related to potential violations by UK companies of the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises – the code of responsible business conduct which the UK Government has committed to promoting. This is nearly a fifth of the total complaints made globally, even though the UK is just one of 50 countries to have established such a National Contact Point.

Explore notable case studies from Business & Human Rights Resource Centre using the grid below.

Existing approaches aren't working

The UK Government’s existing approach to business and human rights issues isn't working. Companies have been encouraged to respect human rights and the environment through a combination of voluntary approaches and soft law that have had little effect.

The number and range of allegations of human rights abuses described on this page and elsewhere demand an urgent response from the UK Government. They are testimony to the failure of the UK’s current approach: encouraging companies to voluntarily assess and mitigate their human rights risks. According to Business Minister Lord Callanan, “the Government supports the voluntary due diligence approaches by UK businesses” and “has not been persuaded that a blanket approach to mandatory due diligence in law is practical or proportionate”. As well as failing victims of corporate abuse, this position has led to low-quality and inconsistent due diligence and reporting from companies.

  • BHRRC’s KnowTheChain project has scored global companies an average of only 29/100 when it comes to due diligence procedures, with just 2% of companies taking “advanced steps” to assess and mitigate their human rights risks.
  • The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark’s 2020 update awards companies only 2.3/10 for their action on human rights due diligence.
  • The UK’s Modern Slavery Act requires companies to report their modern slavery risks. Between 2015 and 2020, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre ran the only public registry of company statements made under the Act. Our 2021 report found 40% of in-scope companies consistently failed to meet their statutory obligations to report their modern slavery risks with zero injunctions or penalties applied to those companies. This led to the conclusion “the Modern Slavery Act has failed in its stated intentions”.

The solution: The Business, Human Rights and Environment Act

There is an overwhelming case for the UK Government to close the legislative gap which allows human rights-abusing companies to evade liability.

Failure to hold corporations accountable when they abuse rights leaves victims high and dry. It also works against the interests of the majority of businesses and investors, which aim to respect rights and want clarity on their legal obligations and a secure and predictable operating environment. The COVID-19 pandemic placed unprecedented strain on supply chains, and there is little resilience remaining to handle future shocks. In an era of volatility and upheaval, scrupulous companies will find it increasingly difficult to compete unless they can be supported by government regulation which establishes and enforces a minimum standard when it comes to human rights.

This should be achieved via a new law – a ‘Business, Human Rights and Environment Act’ – which would require companies to take action to prevent human rights or environmental risks in their operations or supply chains, and hold companies liable for failure to do so. This would apply whether the harm occurred in the UK or overseas. Due diligence is a familiar concept for businesses, and mandating human rights due diligence is a vital means of ensuring businesses focus on the most salient human rights risks that they pose, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights.

Additionally, such a law would reverse the burden of proof by placing a duty on companies to assess, monitor and disclose their human rights risks. If an abuse does occur, it should be down to companies to prove they did not cause or contribute to it.

Polling of the UK public from August 2022 reveals that 87% of respondents would support new laws requiring companies to take meaningful steps to ensure their supply chains do not exploit people.

Learn more about the Business, Human Rights and Environment Act

➡️ Support for the law from civil society organisations as well as more than 125 000 members of the public who have signed a supportive petition.

➡️ A statement from 50 businesses and investors – including Tesco, John Lewis and the British Retail Consortium – announces “we call on the government to introduce a new legal requirement for companies and investors to carry out human rights and environmental due diligence”.

➡️ A statement from 39 investors, with a total of £4.5 trillion in assets under management and advice, calls on the UK government to pass a Business, Human Rights and Environment Act

➡️ August 2022 polling shows that 4 in 5 of the British public support new laws to prevent exploitation of people in supply chains

➡️ Tim Otty QC concluded the proposed law could have been used to hold fashion brand Boohoo liable for widely-reported labour abuses in their supplier factories in Leicester

➡️ Kingsley Napley and Dr Rachel Chambers found a strong case for a new law to be monitored and enforced by an independent regulator, and analysed the powers and resources which a regulator would need to perform this function

Similar legislation is already in place in France, Germany and Norway. A proposed EU-wide law, the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, was adopted by the European Commission in February 2022 and will become operational in the coming years. The adoption of new legislation in other jurisdictions is problematic for UK companies – those operating internationally will be held to different standards depending on where they’re operating, creating an unhelpful and confusing patchwork of regulations. Furthermore, if the UK lags behind on this issue it risks becoming a market for goods tainted with forced labour or environmental destruction.

Import controls

In supply chains or regions where human rights abuses are endemic or civic freedoms are highly restricted, effective corporate human rights due diligence is impossible. In these situations, the UK should consider introducing controls on imports, extending to a full import ban in situations where labour abuses are especially egregious.

This approach has been used in the USA, where the application of the Tariff Act in recent years has led to workers receiving remedy, notably migrant workers in the Malaysian manufacturing sector. The European Commission has proposed its own legislation addressing forced labour in international supply chains.

The UK has fallen behind. The official government response to the recommendations of a Foreign Affairs Committee report into Uyghur forced labour in the Xinjiang region of China said: “We will continue to keep our policy response to goods produced using forced labour under close review.” According to Anti-Slavery International, if the UK becomes a laggard on this issue relative to the US and EU, there is a real risk the UK market will become a haven for goods produced with forced labour which are excluded from other markets.

Read more about how import controls are being developed internationally.

Explore our outreach to UK companies

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre tracks the human rights impacts of companies globally. When an allegation is made against a company, we offer that company the opportunity to respond and present the information in full on our website.

Our website collates allegations of abuse made against UK companies, amplifying the work of journalists, trade unions, workers’ groups and non-governmental organisations. Explore outreach made to UK and global companies in our online database.