Blog: We need a new law to protect human rights and the environment

Companies must be held to account when they fail to prevent abuses and harms

Portrait of Christina McAnea

We urgently need a new UK law to hold companies and the public sector to account when they fail to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harms in their global value chains.

Nothing illustrates how broken the global procurement system is better than examining who gets what and how, at the top and the bottom of the global supply chain.

As exposed on Channel 4 News last week, the non-government organisation, All the Citizens (represented by Wilson Solicitors LLP), settled its claim in the high court to challenge the government’s procurement processes in relation to modern slavery.

UNISON has been working with allies – including Pensions and Investment Research Consultants, which advises UK local authority pension funds, and Nusrat Uddin, a solicitor at Wilson’s – to expose the systemic abuse of workers in PPE and other public sector supply chains.

The legal case raised concerns that publicly owned NHS Supply Chain seriously breached its legal obligations by not properly checking the information provided by Malaysian PPE manufacturer Supermax, in relation to its modern slavery standards.

The company has faced persistent allegations of the use of forced labour involving its migrant workforce.

The International Labour Organisation has 11 indicators for modern slavery, including the retention of employees’ identity documents by employers, withholding of wages, debt bondage and abusive working and living conditions.

NHS Supply Chain will now conduct a new procurement exercise for PPE gloves and only award to suppliers assessed as ‘low’ risk for modern slavery.

I believe this is a significant win, but Supermax is just one of many suppliers to the public sector whose products are riddled with modern slavery and union busting.

Workers at home or abroad can rarely bring cases like this to UK courts, because the law is not fit for purpose. And when they do, as in this case, there is no justice for the workers in the form of apologies or compensation.

But we can be hopeful, because things are changing across Europe.

Countries including France, Germany and Norway have already passed laws requiring companies to undertake robust human rights and environmental due diligence across their supply chains or face civil liability.

There will be EU-wide regulation too. This means that commercial organisations captured by the law will have to proactively identify and manage actual and potential human rights risks for workers in their operations, supply chains and services that they use.

But here in the UK, while we have a Conservative government ideologically wedded to corporate voluntarism, things won’t change. This is a business-as-usual approach, where commercial organisations can choose the labour rights and environmental standards they wish to meet without fear of being held accountable for the harm they cause.

That’s why at UNISON, working with allies such as the Corporate Justice Coalition, we are committed to calling for a new UK business, human rights and environment act to hold companies to account when they fail to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harms in global and local value chains through.

This is an important issue for all trade unions, and the Supermax case shows exactly why the public sector should be included within the scope of such a UK law too.

Watch a recording of an online meeting on labour standards in the rubber glove industry