News & Views

Human Rights Day / Top 10 Business & Human Rights Developments from 2015

2015 was a significant one for the business and human rights agenda both internationally and in Australia. To mark Human Rights Day, we share our top 10 developments from the year:
  1. Momentum on National Action Plans on business and human rights continues to build
  2. Adoption of UK Modern Slavery Act puts greater focus on transparency
  3. Corporate Human Rights Benchmark takes shape
  4. Attorney-General’s Department’s Supply Chains Working Group starts to develop concrete policy recommendations for Australian Government
  5. UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework launched; Unilever first to issue comprehensive report
  6. The Sustainable Development Goals are launched, providing unifying framework for inclusive future
  7. Focus on remedy continues, with progress through the OHCHR Accountability and Remedy Project
  8. Mainstream Australian media interest in business and human rights issues builds
  9. Australian engagement in Voluntary Principles on Security & Human Rights continues to grow
  10. Dialogue continues around potential for binding international treaty on business and human rights

  1. Momentum around National Action Plans on business and human rights continues to build

At the end of 2014, six countries had National Action Plans (NAPs) on business and human rights – essentially roadmaps for how those governments would help support businesses to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the UN Guiding Principles) as well as guidance tools for business on government expectations. Currently, there are 28 countries that have developed, or are in the process of developing, a NAP, including the UK and the US.

The GCNA continues to discuss the potential for an Australian NAP with the Australian Government, business and other stakeholders. At the Australian Dialogue, the Government expressed interest in hearing from business and other stakeholders in relation to what the benefits and challenges might be in developing a NAP. To assist with this process, in early 2016, the GCNA will convene roundtables with the Australian business community to explore this further.

 

  1. Adoption of the UK Modern Slavery Act puts a greater focus on transparency

In October 2015, the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 came into effect, requiring certain companies to publish an annual “slavery and human trafficking statement” outlining steps taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in their business or supply chain. The requirement covers any company operating in the UK with an annual global turnover exceeding £36 million, catching around 12,000 UK and non-UK companies (including some Australian companies that operate in the UK). The statement will have to be signed by senior leadership and be posted on the company’s website including a link prominently placed on its homepage. The UK Government recently published guidance for companies on how to fulfil the transparency requirements (here).

While the law does not force companies to take action to address issues of slavery they will be obliged to publicly disclose that they are not taking any steps if this is the case. Of course, few companies will want to announce that they are not taking steps to address trafficking and slavery, so it is expected that the transparency requirement will drive further human rights due diligence and action. While we do not have similar requirements in Australia, the Attorney-General’s Department’s Supply Chains Working Group is considering regulatory as well as non-regulatory options (see 4 below for further detail).

 

  1. The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark takes shape

During 2015, a coalition of organisations – including the Institute for Human Rights and Business, Calvert Investments and Aviva Investors – launched the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark initiative, which will rank the top 500 globally listed companies (which will include a number of Australian companies) on their human rights policies, processes and performance with the aim of driving a “race to the top”.

The benchmark will make human rights performance easier to see and simpler to understand for a wide range of audiences, including investors, regulators and civil society, enabling them to challenge companies whose performance is poor using an evidence-based approach to improving corporate accountability. The benchmark will also incentivise companies to make information publicly available, including in relation to any adverse impacts.

The global consultation on the methodology was due to close in August 2015, however, due to high levels of interest and engagement, the consultations will now close in early 2016.

 

  1. The Attorney-General’s Department’s Supply Chains Working Group starts to develop concrete policy recommendations for the Australian Government

In 2014, the Attorney-General’s Department announced the formation of its Supply Chains Working Group, comprising experts from government, business, industry, investors, civil society, unions and academia. The purpose of the working group is to examine ways to address serious forms of labour exploitation in the supply chains of goods and services.During 2015, the working group started exploring potential policy options for the Australian Government to consider, including regulation, co-regulation / quasi-regulation, economic instruments, voluntary instruments and awareness raising. The outcomes from the working group are expected in 2016.

 

  1. The UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework launched, with Unilever first to issue comprehensive human rights report

In February 2015, the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework was launched, providing the first comprehensive guidance for companies to report on human rights issues in line with the UN Guiding Principles. The Reporting Framework provides a concise set of questions to which companies should strive to have answers in order to know and show that they are meeting their responsibility to respect human rights in practice. There is a focus on reporting the most salient human rights risks acknowledging prioritisation challenges companies may face.

Early adopters of the Reporting Framework include Unilever (the first adopter), Ericsson, H&M, Nestlé and Newmont. Unilever released its inaugural Human Rights Report in June.

It is likely that companies, even if they do not decide to produce similar stand-alone reports, will incorporate the framework into human rights reporting in annual and sustainability reports. It is also likely to be a useful internal framework for identifying key human rights issues facing the company and any systemic gaps in managing them.

 

  1. The Sustainable Development Goals are launched, providing a powerful aspiration and unifying framework for an inclusive, sustainable future

In September, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – 17 global goals (supported by 169 targets) that lay out a path over the next 15 years to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and protect our planet. The SDGs recognise a critical role for business.

Human rights are essential to achieving sustainable development, and are a cross-cutting issue in the SDG agenda. To illustrate just a few links between the SDGs and business and human rights: ending poverty (e.g. ensuring workers in supply chains are paid fair wages), achieving gender equality (e.g. ensuring appropriate female representation in management and boardrooms), combatting climate change (e.g. mitigating carbon footprints, given the effects of climate change can threaten food security, and even force people to migrate away from their homes).

The UN Global Compact’s principles are the foundation for any company seeking to advance the SDGs. If all companies were to take fundamental steps – like respecting employee rights, not polluting land, sea or air, and refusing bribery and extortion – we would make enormous progress towards achieving the SDGs. It is also important that companies continue to respect all internationally recognised human rights while striving to meet the SDGs. The GCNA’s Human Rights Leadership Group and Sustainable Development Leadership Group will work together over the coming year to further explore the linkages.

 

  1. A focus on remedy continues, with progress through the OHCHR Accountability and Remedy Project

Focus continues on access to remedy for human rights abuses, and it was a key theme at the UN’s 2015 Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights.

The right to a remedy is a key tenet of the international human rights system and a core pillar of the UN Guiding Principles. However, due to legal and practical challenges, victims often struggle to access remedy for business-related human rights infringements. To start addressing these challenges, in 2014, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) launched its Accountability and Remedy Project, aiming to contribute to fairer and more effective systems of domestic law remedies. The project’s 25 focus jurisdictions included Australia.

In 2015, a global consultation process was undertaken, and an early draft of recommendations to and guidance for governments to enhance corporate accountability and access to remedy, including a series of “Good Practice Indicators”, was released. The Human Rights Council will consider the project’s final report in June 2016.

 

  1. Mainstream Australian media interest in business and human rights issues builds

During 2015, mainstream Australian media attention to business and human rights issues intensified – a trend we expect to continue in 2016. The focus was not only on Australian and foreign companies’ activities abroad as we have seen in recent years, but also on the human rights risks companies face in Australia around issues ranging from migrant workers’ rights to land access.

Most of us will have seen the Four Corners investigation in May into farm labour conditions. In July, a Sydney Morning Herald article, ‘Danger Under Ground’, explored the role of Australian mining companies in Africa and highlighted the significant human rights risks involved in operating in what can be very challenging environments. The case for human rights due diligence was also emphasised in an AFR article, ‘Backing Human rights is a business cost-saver: lawyers’, which warned that a failure to implement human rights policies can lead to costs far exceeding those associated with implementing effective due diligence at the outset. In August, 7-Eleven was in the spotlight over exploitation of workers in their convenience stores. We then saw coverage in September of No Business in Abuse’s campaign against Transfield.

The media not only now recognises business and human rights issues as newsworthy, but is increasingly instigating their own investigations.

 

  1. Australian engagement in the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights continues to grow

Established in 2000, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (VPs) aim to guide companies in maintaining the safety and security of their operations within an operating framework that encourages respect for human rights. The Australian Government became a participant in the VPs in 2013. During 2015, Woodside became the newest participant, joining other Australian corporates BHP Billiton, Newcrest, PanAust and Rio Tinto.

The GCNA’s Security and Human Rights Community of Practice – a peer forum for senior security representatives from extractives companies and their community relations colleagues, together with select security experts and Australian Government representatives – continued its work to highlight the business case for following the Voluntary Principles as well as tips for managing dilemma situations. During 2015, the GCNA had input into the Australian Government’s VPs implementation plan.

 

  1. Dialogue continues around the potential for a binding international treaty on business and human rights 

The current debate around a binding treaty on business and human rights began formally in June 2014, when the UN Human Rights Council adopted two resolutions:

  • The first resolution, led by Ecuador and South Africa, was to establish the Open-Ended Inter-Governmental Working Group (OEIGWG) on a legally binding instrument on business and human rights.
  • The second resolution, led by Norway (and supported by 22 countries including Australia), requested a report on the legal and practical measures to improve access to remedy, including the role of a legally binding instrument.

In July 2015, the first session of the OEIGWG was convened to discuss a potential binding instrument. The discussion was chaired by Ecuador. Australia, alongside other governments including the United States, declined to participate. While there was consensus on the relevance of continuing work to implement the UN Guiding Principles alongside treaty discussions, no agreement was reached on the potential scope of a binding instrument. The dialogue will continue in 2016 with the OEIGWG set to meet again next October.