UNISON demands human rights due diligence law for supply chains

Both business and the public sector should be held to account if they fail to prevent human rights abuse and environmental damage

UNISON is stepping up its campaign for a new UK law that would hold companies to account when they fail to prevent human rights abuses and environmental damage in their business.

The ‘failure to prevent’ law would mandate both companies and the public sector to undertake human rights due diligence (HRDD) across their supply chains.

This would include identifying and assessing risks, putting in place measures to prevent or mitigate them – including remedy for victims – and transparency about their actions.

Companies and public sector bodies could be held liable in a UK court for harm, loss and damage arising from their failure to act, even if the abuse occurred in a different country.

Such policing would increase protection for workers, communities, human rights defenders and the environment.

The union is part of the broad-based civil society coalition, led by Corporate Justice Coalition and including the TUC, which is calling for the legislation. The idea has the support of a growing number of more progressive businesses, such as Unilever and ASOS, which believe in the need for a human rights due diligence law.

Nick Crook, UNISON head of international said today: “It’s unacceptable that in 2021 our members have to wear rubber gloves and face masks – to protect their own lives and save the lives of others – which are tainted by forced labour in the countries where they’re made. Or that Malaysian companies supplying the UK public sector can get away with sending migrant workers home on the day of their trade union recognition ballot, while they continue to work in extremely exploitative conditions.

“We urgently need a law that will force businesses and the public sector to take preventative action against abuse to workers and the environment, or face serious consequences.”

Among the issues that inform UNISON’s campaign:

  • More than 2.78 million people die globally, each year, through occupational accidents or work-related diseases;
  • Thousands of trade unionists and other human and environmental rights defenders are murdered, detained, assaulted and/or threatened by entities connected with economic activity;
  • Too many businesses are linked to serious abuses, including exploitative working conditions, modern slavery and child labour, toxic pollution and the rampant destruction of rainforests;
  • The global public sector procures around £260bn of goods and services from the private sector annually, but does not do enough to make their suppliers accountable.

Next month the EU is tabling its own version of the law, which seems likely to capture any business that is operating on EU soil, regardless of where it is headquartered.

In the UK, the idea was supported in the Labour Party’s last general election manifesto. The current shadow foreign, commonwealth and development team continues to support it in principle.

UNISON believes that the law won’t even be discussed by the government, let alone adopted, without a major public campaign. Polling already indicates that the majority of the public wants laws that regulate business, which it regards as too unaccountable.

The union is holding a webinar on the issue on Wednesday 12 May. Members are invited to join the event and learn from global experts about the law, what difference it would make and how to get involved.

Sign up for the webinar