Bangladeshis work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 19, 2018. 

© 2019 AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

The German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy is trying to weaken measures that would track how well companies in the country identify and respond to possible human rights abuses in their supply chains. The coalition government should stand firm at a meeting of secretaries of state taking place today and adopt a monitoring system that holds German companies to rigorously high standards when it comes to sourcing materials responsibly. The companies should ensure that their supply chains are free of human rights abuses from start to finish – in line with internationally recognized norms.

“The Economics Ministry is putting forward a proposal that would make it far too easy for companies to be categorized as complying with international human rights standards when they are not doing the job,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “There is a risk that the monitoring system will be misused as a political tool to avoid tougher government measures on companies – most importantly, the passage of a much-needed law on supply chains.” A supply chain is composed of all steps needed to make a product – from obtaining raw materials to shipping, manufacturing, and retail.

The parties making up Germany’s coalition government have agreed between themselves that if the country’s large companies don’t voluntarily address supply chain and other human rights abuses sufficiently by 2020, the government will consider creating laws that require them to do so. Companies would have to identify, mitigate, and account for the human rights impact of their activities.

Whether the government moves forward with proposing a law on supply chains depends therefore, in large part, on how thoroughly the government is monitoring companies’ performances. However, the proposed monitoring system has already been derailed by disagreements among government officials. A questionnaire for self-reporting on the topic was supposed to have been sent out to companies based in Germany with more than 500 employees for them to respond to between May and July. But this process has stalled, and the questionnaires have yet to be distributed because the Economic Affairs Ministry disagrees with the plan.

The ministry is proposing a monitoring system that would allow the government to categorize more companies as complying with government standards for responsible sourcing. It suggests that rather than only two categories – “compliant” and “non-compliant” –, there should be four, including those “with compliance plans” and “partially compliant.”

Germany’s 2016 National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights foresees a “robust” monitoring system to assess company performance, which is far from the Economic Ministry’s current proposal.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 450 million people work in supply chain-related jobs. Human Rights Watch has documented labor rights abuses such as child labor, forced labor, hazardous working conditions, attacks on trade unionists, and other serious human rights abuses in global supply chains.

For example, child laborers and adults in Ghana, the Philippines, and many other countries risk ill-health and death when mining gold in unstable pits and processing ore with toxic mercury. Human Rights Watch has also documented labor abuses in global garment supply chains, including excessive or forced overtime work, denial of breaks, pregnancy discrimination, and attacks on trade unionists.

While a number of German apparel companies have joined the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, many of these companies still do not adopt basic human rights due diligence good practices, such as supply chain transparency. In addition, changes in apparel companies’ purchasing practices and the introduction of quality grievance redress measures for workers in their global supplier factories are critical to mitigate labor abuses in global supply chains. Human Rights Watch has also documented that German companies such as the jeweller Christ and the clothing brand KiK, do not have human rights safeguards in their supply chains.

“The Economics Ministry’s delaying tactics and whitewash proposals are a disgrace,” Kippenberg said. “The government should show that respect for international human rights norms at home and abroad and Germany’s economic interests are not mutually exclusive, and that support for good practices can enhance economic growth.”