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Human Rights Watch Wants to Abolish Slave Labor in the Supply Chain

Human Rights Watch says it is pressing governments worldwide to adopt policies to prevent what it says are rampant labor abuses in worldwide supply chains.

At issue is the complex web of supply chains around the world, which account for 450 million jobs, but have huge disparities between labor laws depending on the country. According to the United Nations' International Labour Organization, an estimated 21 million workers work in forced labor conditions in supply chains around the world.

The creation and enforcement of policies by national governments can help to stop companies from buying components from rogue firms overseas that exploit workers, which often involves women and children, Human Rights Watch says.

“Legally binding rules are the only realistic way to ensure that companies don't exploit workers or contribute to labor abuses,” Juliane Kippenberg, associate children's rights director at Human Rights Watch, said.

Laws that bind
While international norms exists, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, they are largely ineffective.  Without binding laws in effect in the buyer’s country, firms are thus largely able to legally do business with suppliers that violate international agreements such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other international norms for companies are not legally binding, Companies can and sometimes do ignore them, or take them up half-heartedly and ineffectively,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “Many companies have inadequate or no human rights due diligence measures in place, and their actions cause or contribute to human rights abuses. In the absence of legally binding standards, ensuring that all companies take their human rights due diligence responsibilities seriously becomes extremely difficult, while voluntary standards are not enough.”

Some firms may also rely on suppliers in good faith, often assuming the supplier was following laws and regulations in effect in its host country, but later learn that it was illegally exploiting its workers. Citing a document from watch group Good Electronics, for example, The National recently reported that universities throughout Europe were purchasing servers from China-based Wistron Corp., which Good Electronics said were made by students in China “working on either forced or irrelevant ‘internships’ on the supply lines at electronic factories.” The students were told they would not receive their degrees if they refused to work six days a week and up to 12 hours a day in the factory, where HP, Dell, Lenovo, and other firms purchase electronics components and devices, The National said.

Pressuring governments
Human Rights Watch made its case for governments around the world to create laws placing the responsibility on companies to ensure that suppliers do not violate international labor policy guidelines at its recent International Labour Conference in Geneva. In a statement, the organization said the conference lobbied government, employer, trade union, and other representatives for the creation of worldwide policies that enforce labor laws throughout worldwide supply chains in order to “bring about fundamental change.”

It is thus up to governments to create policies that make it illegal for companies to work with overseas suppliers that do not heed international labor guidelines, Human Rights Watch said.

“While complex global supply chains can offer important opportunities for economic and social development, they often present serious human rights risks that many companies have failed to mitigate and respond to effectively,” Human Rights Watch said. “Governments [thus] have the primary responsibility to protect human rights, including of people working in global supply chains, but have often failed to oversee or regulate the human rights practices of companies domiciled on their soil.”

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