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Profits and loss - human rights and the artisan

My eight year old son recently asked me “what’s an artisan baker?” (we were in Dulwich!) and I explained that an artisan is a skilled physical worker - that artisan bakers’ bread will be made by hand and baked in the shop, whereas the bread in Greggs, for example, will be made in a factory and delivered to the shop each morning to be baked. Of course artisan bakers also charge a lot more for their bread.

I didn’t think much more about this conversation until earlier this week when I was reading a new Amnesty International report Profits and loss: Mining and human rights in Katanga. Our research documents how multinational companies operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) need to do more to prevent their operations from leading to human rights abuses. We highlight a number of serious abuses involving local and foreign companies including forced evictions and dangerous and exploitative working conditions. Our research pays particular attention to the role of Chinese companies, which are on course to become the most influential and powerful foreign economic actors in the extractive sector in the DRC – a country with some of the world’s most important mineral reserves.

On reading the report I was reminded of the epic images that Sebastião Salgado recorded of gold mine workers in the Serra Pelada gold mine Brazil. The workers appear in almost biblical scenes of poverty and suffering, a Dante’s Inferno into which they have been thrown and must dig to survive. Salgado’s images perhaps offer some insight into the lengths people will go to in extracting precious minerals.

The impact that business can have on human rights in their international operations have been well documented over the years. We’ve seen major high street brands linked to supply chain abuses and the exploitation of child labour, trade unionists targeted for standing up for workers rights, local communities displaced to make way for mines and livelihoods and agriculture destroyed by pollution and environmental degradation.

The victims of such abuses are inevitably the local communities and the workers who are vulnerable to laggard companies and governments that will cut corners to secure deals and profits. In the DRC, it’s the artisanal miners who dig for Coltan and Cobalt in perilous conditions who are subjected to beatings, arbitrary detention and exploitation. These artisan workers, unlike the bakers of Dulwich, can’t demand the optimal price for their work.

Weak institutions, a lack of political will, poor governance, and corruption all create a fertile environment in which human rights abuses flourish. Impunity prevails as the victims are left with no access to justice or redress. This is fundamentally an issue of justice, something denied many of those who have suffered the negative consequences of operations by multinational corporations.

The absence of an effective judicial system in the DRC means the artisanal miners are unlikely to get justice in their home country. If they attempt to seek justice in China they will find that the government there does not recognise any extra territorial obligations of its companies – justice denied.
However, China is not alone in adopting this approach. The UK government’s approach with respect to the human rights performance of UK companies abroad is as deficient as China’s, as they also fail to hold UK companies to account for their actions abroad. In fact measures introduced in the Legal Aid Act have created further obstacles to redress.

This reminds me of what Joseph Stiglitz recently explained as “the plastic man capacity” for multinational corporations “to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time” so avoid paying taxes. These companies display this same ‘plastic man capacity’ when it comes to being held accountable for human rights abuses.

In his pre-G8 speech the Prime Minister once again raised “the golden thread” theory which posits a link between open economies and open societies.  Eradicating conflict and corruption, establishing the rule of law, free speech and the presence of property rights and strong institutions are central to this.

All well and good Mr Cameron, but now it’s time to start delivering. In June 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the ‘UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (Guiding Principles): these have “the golden thread” running through them.

The UK Government has a mixed record in this area, but has been supportive of the UN Guiding Principles and will soon launch a much awaited Action Plan that will outline how they intend to implement them in the UK. The Action Plan must be worth the paper it is written on, it must signal the beginning of a commitment to address human rights committed by businesses, it must offer solutions and it must be implemented robustly. 

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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