Human rights at work and British business
Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights (MPs and Lords) has published a report today (Wednesday 16 December) which looks at how human rights can be improved at the workplace, home and abroad. The Committee criticises the Government for not having a coherent strategy to address the impact on human rights of British business. It is a serious, understated report which makes the case for a long term review of the global human rights impact of British business, but it also makes some immediate points about the domestic scene. It suggests that British industrial relations laws are out of step with our international obligations and, to quote the report, "we doubt the compatibility of the Government's blacklisting proposals with the UK's international human rights obligations." And it says "we anticipate revisiting this issue."
More broadly, and unambiguously, the Joint Committee notes that
"the right to freedom of association, the associated right to strike, the right to trade union membership and the right to collective bargaining are rights recognised in the international human rights obligations of the UK and overseen by the European Court of Human Rights, the ILO and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the ILO Committee of Experts consider that current domestic law on the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining places undue restrictions on those rights."
The report is the culmination of months of hearings and evidence sifting, and the TUC, CBI and many human rights and corporate social responsibility NGOs submitted views. Although it will disappoint some because it doesn't set down a shopping list of concrete proposals, it is a major report which requires serious consideration by government and business.
One of the demands made by the TUC and the CORE coalition – including Amnesty International – was that there should be a UK Commission for Business, Human Rights and the Environment, and the report indicates sympathy for that. But it notes that there is so little in the way of legislation that the Commission might face an impossible task, and that's a reasonable point to make. We will need to redouble our pressure on the British government to develop a strategy, draw up new legislation, and make the case for a Commission.
Of particular interest to the TUC are the proposals to improve the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which set down moral guidelines for corporations operating globally, but offers only a voluntary enforcement system, through National Contact Points – housed in BIS in the UK. The TUC believes that the Guidelines do need to be improved, as the report recommends, and we would like to see a stronger, better resourced NCP – in particular, the report suggests that the Government needs to give the NCP more independence and the power to enforce its findings. But as we reported to the Joint Committee, the British NCP has helped to resolve some recent disputes about the behaviour of UK multinationals – such as the G4S dispute that led to an International Framework Agreement between the company and the global UNI trade union federation.
So there is a lot in this report that needs thinking through and then acting on. Hopefully, it will receive the attention it's closely worded argument deserves.
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