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Should Corporate Social Responsibility be Voluntary or Binding?

Germany’s Next Government Will Decide

Women work in the sewing division of a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Women constitute about 90 percent of the workforce in Cambodia’s garment industry, which produces for many international apparel brands. Human Rights Watch has documented that workers in Cambodia frequently experience forced overtime, pregnancybased discrimination, and denial of paid maternity leave.   © 2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Mobile phones, clothes, or food: these products and others we use every day can be produced through processes that don’t respect rights. Human Rights Watch has documented the catastrophic things that can happen in leather tanneries in Bangladesh, clothes factories in Cambodia, and gold mines in the Philippines.

At the end of 2016, the German government adopted a National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights, urging German businesses to commit to human rights due diligence – safeguards to make sure they are respecting rights – across their entire supply chains. The Action Plan is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, considered the standard for businesses’ responsibilities in this area. Germany aims to have 50 percent of businesses with more than 500 employees implement its plan by 2020. Should businesses fail to meet this goal, the German government will consider legally binding measures.

Human Rights Watch supports the adoption of such action plans, and we also recommend binding human rights due diligence rules for companies irrespective of their size. Experience has shown that voluntary standards are simply not enough.

Germany will hold federal elections on September 24, and its next government will monitor and evaluate the Action Plan’s implementation and decide whether there should be binding rules for businesses.

Some political parties appear more likely to do so than others.

While the manifestos of all parties represented in the Bundestag recognise the need to protect rights across global supply chains, their positions diverge significantly when it comes to binding human rights due diligence. A survey of German parties on resource policy carried out by the Christian Initiative Romero highlights this, as did the arduous negotiations during the National Action Plan’s development. For example, the CDU, much like the FDP, opposes binding standards for businesses. In contrast, the manifestos of the SPD, the Green Party and the Left Party explicitly demand binding due diligence codes for businesses. The SPD is the only party to demand in its manifesto that the Action Plan be “put into practice consistently”.

Unfortunately, the issue of international corporate social responsibility has barely been touched upon in this election campaign. The fact that seamstresses in Cambodia’s factories and children working in Bangladesh’s tanneries have no vote is no reason to avoid adding German business practices to the election debate topics.

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