Momentum for change: UK public joins business and civil society to demand new Business, Human Rights and Environment law
The call for the UK Government to table a new UK law to root out corporate supply chain abuses - wherever they take place – is rapidly building.
Tens of thousands of people in the UK are signing a joint civil society petition calling on the UK Parliament to deliver change on business and human rights.
The petition, jointly powered by the Corporate Justice Coalition and partner organisations including SumOfUs, Freedom United and Traidcraft Exchange, sends a clear demand to Parliament from more than 25,000 people: “We need a new law to hold business, finance and the public sector to account when they fail to prevent supply chain human rights abuses and environmental harms.”
It builds on clear UK public opinion more must be done to punish irresponsible business behaviour, and focus group research findings that, after Brexit, key voter groups are sceptical about the motives of multinational corporations and want strong rules to ‘level the playing field’ and uphold high standards.
With European countries introducing new laws, the petition adds momentum to a UK campaign which has in recent months added business support to an agreed civil society framework for what due diligence law with liability must include.
In October, 36 businesses and investors, including Microsoft, Tesco, Primark and John Lewis, made their UK stance clear: “The government must introduce a new legal requirement for companies and investors to carry out human rights and environmental due diligence.”
As the businesses put it, they want to be compelled to: “…assess, act and report on their potential and actual impacts on human rights and the environment.”
While some companies already take steps to embed due diligence processes in their operations, many do not – a point made clear in last month’s UK NCP finding that JCB is in breach of its human rights responsibilities, in the context of the frequent use of its heavy machinery products in Israel’s home demolitions and settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territory.
It’s clear that despite repeated scandals — like the all-too-familiar claims of rampant labour rights abuses at Boohoo factories in Leicester, or the well-publicised allegations of companies profiting from Uyghur forced labour in China - the problem of tackling rights abuses in business supply chains remains far from solved.
And, as a legal opinion published last month by Corporate Justice Coalition and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre demonstrates, such a new law could compel companies like Boohoo to do much more to root out alleged supply chain abuses.
Last June marked 10 years since the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs), which the Government repeatedly cites as its reference point for business and human rights. But while the UNGPs call for a ‘smart mix’ of voluntary and mandatory policies, the Government said in July that: “Human rights abuses are a wide and varied issue, which is why the UK Government prefer the approach of encouraging businesses to follow the voluntary framework of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”
However, this position now seems to be shifting.
In response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s findings on abuses suffered by the Uyghur people in China, for which Corporate Justice Coalition and Anti-Slavery International jointly submitted evidence, the Government said: “We would need to be persuaded that any proposals to mandate supply chain due diligence in UK law are practical, proportionate and would deliver tangible improvements to the protection of people’s rights in the UK and elsewhere in the world.”
While the Modern Slavery Act S.54 was one of the first attempts to embed the UNGPs in domestic law, due to its focus on transparency reporting alone and lack of any enforcement regime, it is now recognised in civil society and Parliament as not ‘fit for purpose’.
As Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee outlined in stark terms: “The Modern Slavery Act… has not kept pace with changes in business supply chains… is out of date and has no teeth.”
Little wonder UK laws have been overtaken by laws at different stages in France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, among others. On top of this, the EU’s own due diligence initiative, due to be tabled in March 2022, is expected to apply to all UK businesses operating in the Single Market.
As UK businesses in support of a new law say: “The UK now has an opportunity to retain its leading role, rather than following the footsteps of others.
“Legislation can contribute to a competitive level playing field, increase legal certainty about the standards expected from companies, ensure consequences when responsibilities are not met, promote engagement and impactful actions between supply chain partners and, above all, incentivise impactful and effective action on the ground.”
Crucially, the businesses are united in demanding the ‘teeth’ that the Modern Slavery Act lacks in order to ensure high quality due diligence and that “victims have access to justice”.
UK civil society groups are united in calling for a new UK provision to be modelled on duties and liability provisions in the Bribery Act 2010. This is the template called for by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights and endorsed as legally feasible by the British Institute of International and Comparative Law – and fashion retailer ASOS calls for precisely this.
With opposition parties showing support for this new era of corporate regulation, states across Europe making huge strides forward, and British businesses and investors joining rights groups and the public in demanding a new UK law - the ball sits squarely in the Government’s court.
Our message is simple: take the urgent action we need to enforce the regulation of supply chains or preside over the UK’s fall from leader to laggard on business and human rights.
Georgina Berriman is Policy and Communications Officer at the Corporate Justice Coalition. Mark Dearn is Director of the Corporate Justice Coalition.