Our lives are full of products produced in faraway countries—think of the clothes you wear or the device you are reading this on. In many cases, consumers have little information about how they are produced, or under what conditions. Human Rights Watch has documented a wide range of human rights abuses in the context of global supply chains, such as labour rights abuses and anti-union tactics against factory workers in the garment industry, hazardous child labour in artisanal gold mines, and severe labour rights abuses against migrant workers in construction.
I have interviewed children working in small-scale gold mines in the Philippines, Ghana, Tanzania, and Mali, supplying the global market with gold for jewellery, smartphones, laptops, and other goods. These children risk their lives in deep, unstable pits, suffer pain and ill-health from the hard work, and process gold with toxic mercury, which can cause lifelong illness and disability.
At the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, governments should pledge to protect human rights in global supply chains—and they should act on this pledge. The 450 million people working in global supply chains need robust rules to protect them.
It is good news that Germany has put the issue of sustainable supply chains on the G20 agenda, continuing its global leadership on the issue. The German government also made sure that the issue of sustainable supply chains was high up on the agenda of the G7 meeting it hosted in 2015. Germany also pushed for strong protections for workers in global supply chains during discussions at the International Labour Conference in 2016.
Last month, Germany hosted the G20 Labour and Employment Ministerial Meeting. In their final declaration, ministers recognized that labour rights abuses “cannot be part of the competition” and made a commitment to “strengthen compliance with fundamental principles and rights at work in global supply chains.” They called for accelerated action to end child labour and modern slavery in global supply chains and underlined the responsibility of businesses to conduct due diligence to ensure that human rights are respected in their operations.
Last but not least, the ministers reiterated their support for a decision taken last year by the International Labour Conference–the global summit of governments, workers, and employers – to consider whether a new, legally binding international standard on decent work on global supply chains is needed.
These commitments are important, as they move the international agenda on global supply chains forward and bring on board allies from within the G20—a group that includes various western countries but also Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey. G20 governments should make sure that their final G20 declaration—the Leaders’ Declaration—reflects these important commitments made by the labour ministers.
But the work does not end here; bolder action is needed. The Leaders’ Declaration should support mandatory rules on human rights safeguards for companies, building on models developed by the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. Such “due diligence” rules should legally require companies to assess, prevent, mitigate, and remediate harmful human rights impacts of their actions. Companies should also be required to publicly disclose their suppliers and report on their human rights due diligence efforts.
In addition, governments should commit to promoting and protecting space for civil society, trade unions, whistle-blowers, and communities to expose and demand an end to human rights violations in the context of global supply chains.
Germany can and should play a crucial role in shaping a strong agenda to protect human rights in global supply chains. The work is only just beginning.
This article was written as part of a Business & Human Rights Resource Centre blog series 'Engaging the G20 on business and human rights.'