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Will the ILO Make Labor Rights Rules Binding for Businesses?

Forced and child labor remain substantial issues for global supply chains—one that only an enforceable international treaty may be able to quell.

The International Labor Conference kicked off in Geneva Monday, bringing together governments, employers and workers the world over to discuss ways to ensure “decent work” in global supply chains.

At the conference, nonprofit Human Rights Watch (HRW) hit delegates with a 21-page report calling for a binding global standard to protect labor rights in supply chains.

“Millions of people around the world suffer human rights abuses because of businesses’ poor practices and lax government regulation,” Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Legally binding rules are the only realistic way to ensure that companies don’t exploit workers or contribute to labor abuses.”

Some 450 million people work in supply-chain related jobs, and of that, 168 million are children, 85 million of whom work in hazardous conditions where their safety is endangered, according to the report.

Culprit companies haven’t quite done a first-rate job of mitigating labor risks or responding to them accordingly.

“Individual companies’ global supply chains often involve large numbers of suppliers or subcontractors, including some who are part of the informal sector,” the report noted. “The people most affected by human rights abuses in a company’s supply chain often belong to groups who have no realistic opportunities to call attention to these problems themselves, or secure a remedy, such as women workers, migrant workers, child laborers, or residents of rural or poor urban areas.”

And supply chains are close to being solely comprised of women workers, migrant workers and residents of rural or poor urban areas.

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There are international standards, like the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which call for companies to do their “human rights due diligence” to make sure supply chain conditions are compliant when it comes to labor rights. But those principles are just guides, they aren’t enforceable, and in some cases, that renders them little more than friendly suggestions that brands are at will to take on or overlook.

Governments haven’t sufficiently played their roles as regulators either.

“While governments do generally regulate company behavior at the domestic level, they do so with varying degrees of seriousness and effectiveness,” the report noted. “And governments have consistently failed to oversee or regulate the extraterritorial human rights practices of companies domiciled on their soil.”

Instead of hoping for companies to do the right thing, HRW wants the International Labor Organization (ILO) to set binding standards for companies to abide to, which draws on widely accepted standards like from UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The binding standard should require businesses to: adopt and implement a clear policy commitment to human rights; identify and assess actual and potential adverse human rights impacts; verify whether those adverse impacts are being dealt with; and an effective process to ensure adversely affected people can secure remediation of any adverse human rights impacts a business has caused or contributed to.

“In the absence of legally binding standards, ensuring that all companies take their human rights due diligence responsibilities seriously becomes extremely difficult,” HRW said. “Voluntary standards, while valuable, are not enough.”