Tonight the Swedish skies will be lit up by the flames of the Walpurgis’ bonfires and many of us will just lean back and enjoy the festive ambiance, followed by the public holiday tomorrow. Perhaps only a few will remind themselves that May 1 is a day when schools and public institutions are closed in celebration of the International Labour Day.
At Enact, we took the opportunity to have a conversation and ask a few questions to our labour and human rights experts, who have a longstanding experience working with these issues in international business contexts.
Thomas Trier Hansen, you have worked in more than 45 countries and have a vast experience with human rights risk mapping and assessments. What would you say are the most pressing issues for companies to deal with right now in regards to labour issues and human rights?
It depends a little bit on where the company is based, but if the company is based in the Nordics, I would say that ethical recruitment is an important issue. For example, if you as a company are using another company’s services, let’s say within cleaning or construction, meaning that you have workers on your site that are not directly employed by you, you still have a certain responsibility for their working conditions in case of an accident or to make sure that you are not becoming indirectly involved in social dumping if their salary levels or other contract conditions are below normal.
Another important issue to be aware of is modern slavery, which exists all over the world, perhaps not as common everywhere, but it certainly can be found even in the Nordics. Those at risk of being victims of modern slavery are often illegal immigrants who may end up in situations where they receive too low salaries or have to work under unfair working conditions with no possibility to raise a complaint without risking their livelihood.
Sandra Atler, Director of the Human Rights and Business Practice Group at Enact, you are an internationally recognised expert on business and human rights. On the international arena, in terms of legislation or just sharper implementation of existing laws, do you see any general trends that may help us foresee the development in the labour rights field in the coming 5 years?
For sure we will see more laws popping up in “the west” requiring companies to disclose on their human rights performance, like the UK Modern Slavery Act. The problem for companies is of course when states decide to do so focusing on a particular topic. The UK Modern Slavery Act, for example, focuses on forced labor and trafficking, and a Dutch legal initiative focuses on child labour. Companies are best advised to be systematic for all labor and human rights more broadly to not end up in an ever competing chase of “issues”. I would also hope that legislators begin questioning the value of “transparency only”. Whilst transparency is an important means and goal in itself, effective human rights performance needs more than disclosure requirements and calls for substantive requirements of companies not doing harm to human rights. Transparency alone will not cure human rights abuse by companies.
Hopefully, we will also see more countries adopting legal requirements for companies to conduct human rights due diligence (not just disclosure requirements). In fact, this is proposed for Sweden through an investigation by the Swedish Agency for Public Management (where Enact supported with the legal analysis and recommendations).
Annelien van Meer, Managing Director of Enact in the Netherlands, you have more than ten years of experience in conducting training programmes and advising companies in areas such as human rights and transparency. Compared to five years ago, do you see any change in how large international companies are dealing with labour rights issues?
In my view, there is a slow, but steady uptake of the understanding that labour rights are a matter of importance. Especially the notion that a company has a responsibility towards labour rights beyond their own employees is increasing. I think a lot of companies here in The Netherlands to a large extent have been respecting the labour rights of their employees for many decades. But respecting the labour rights of the workers in their supply chain is relatively new. However, they struggle to see how they can improve the situation of workers in their supply chains. I think sometimes Dutch companies could be a bit more proactive in this area – and follow the examples of some Swedish frontrunners that have taken much more actions in this regard, such as encouraging trade unions within supplier factories.
Thomas Trier Hansen, do you have anything to add? Do you see any change?
I think there is an increased awareness about it, but there are still a number of challenges, like the one about minimum wages or living wages, which are not the same thing. For many companies it is complicated to operate in different countries, but many of the large companies that do so are trying to address the labour and human rights issues. They might not find themselves able to change everything right away, but they are aware that they need to move in the direction where they protect the workers more.
Anne Mette Christiansen, Head of Enact Advisory services, you are currently teaching a course on Business and Human Rights at the Washington and Lee University, US as a visiting professor. What would you say have changed the most in regards to labour rights and human rights in the US?
We see the whole topic growing quickly here, and many companies are rapidly becoming much more aware of labour rights and human rights. Also, young people are increasingly interested in the issues of social sustainability. Compared to two years ago, the human rights and business course has grown 150% in enrollment, and now has a waiting list – students are critical and aware of US companies’ performance.