Responsible buying in higher education institutions

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2018 Higher Education Service Group Conference
18 September 2017

Conference recognises that precarious work is becoming a growing occurrence across the world as some governments seek to develop their economies at the expense of their workforces. Precarious work include workers being forced to work extremely long hours for very little or no pay, sometimes in very hazardous conditions including unsafe buildings; the growing use of child labour; the absence of proper contracts with agreed wages and conditions; not allowing workers to join unions, and the use of physical and sexual violence against workers.

Decent work, a key objective of the Strategic Development Goals (SDGs), has been widely downgraded in favour of rapid development as workers are being denied their fundamental rights. The removal of legally-binding rights is becoming more widespread as governments introduce legislation to create more ‘flexibility’ in the labour market: a euphemism for rolling back hard-won trade union and workers’ rights.

Conference is dismayed to hear that in Bangladesh, despite the promised reforms by the government following the tragic events of Rana Plaza, decent work still eludes the millions of workers in the ready made garment industry. This practice of flexibility and denial of workers’ rights is becoming more widespread as Asia becomes a hub for manufacturing because of its poor regulatory framework.

Conference recognises that there are several international treaties and codes in place that must be respected if workers are not to be abused in supply chains of goods destined for use in public services in the UK. These include the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, International Labour Organisation (ILO) core labour conventions, the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base Code and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Conference notes that some public bodies in the UK have developed ethical procurement policies but believes that this needs to be expanded to include all public service providers.

Conference is aware that modern slavery, including forced and bonded labour, is becoming more widespread both in the UK and overseas. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 people are enslaved in the UK. Conference notes that 11% of British business leaders polled through YouGov admitted that it was “likely” modern slavery was playing a part in their supply chains.

Conference is aware that Higher Education institutions are regarded as ‘commercial organisations’ for the purposes of the Modern Slavery Act, and as such, must produce a statement (if the turnover is in excess of £36m pa) showing how it is addressing potential serious abuses in its supply chains. Conference believes all Higher Education institutions should proactively demonstrate how they are tackling abuses in their supply chains as they purchase not only office supplies but technical equipment, food, beverages and branded merchandise.

Several university procurement consortiums have produced policies and codes of conduct for suppliers which conference applauds. Conference would like to see all Higher Education institutions produce codes which place a responsibility on suppliers to disclose their factory locations.

Conference further believes that UNISON members in Higher Education, as well as in private companies providing public services, have an important role to play in ensuring their employers source ethically to ensure there is no exploitation in their supply chains.

Conference therefore calls on the Higher Education Service Group Executive to:

1)Work with the NEC international committee to promote UNISON’s ethical procurement policy including its guidance on responsible buying;

2)Encourage branches to engage with their institutions on sustainable and ethical procurement strategies to ensure that products including clothing, footwear, electronics, food and other goods are ethically sourced;

3)Encourage branches to work with their institutions to ensure ethical clauses relating to Modern Slavery, Living Wage Foundation, decent work, freedom of association, sustainability and the use of Fair-trade Foundation materials are included in all contracts agreed with suppliers;

4)Support campaigns to close a loophole in the Modern Slavery Act so that UK companies are held responsible for abuses in their supply chains where goods or services are not destined for the UK e.g. the construction industry and education institutions in the Middle East;

5)Work with other trade unions and non-governmental organisations such as Labour Behind the Label and People and Planet, to support workers making goods destined for the UK market, in their campaigns for fundamental rights at work;

6)Encourage branches and regions to affiliate to Anti-Slavery International and Labour Behind the Label;

7)Call on the institutions to affiliate to Electronics Watch to monitor suppliers providing electronic equipment to the institution.