To Realise Modest Dreams: Law, policy and decent work

Remarks to Committee on Decent Work in Global Supply Chains, International Labour Conference, Geneva, 30 May 2016 

Many thanks for the opportunity of speaking here today.

This is a timely discussion. It occurs, of course, in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal 8 to, “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. This includes a clear target for an end to slavery and child labour.

The deliberations of this Committee are therefore the first substantive international consideration of what practical measures may be put in place to help achieve the ideals of that particular goal.

I believe that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, give us the clearest guidance on how these deliberations should proceed. They state that businesses have the responsibility to respect workers’ human rights while governments have the responsibility to protect those rights. Of course it is desperately difficult for businesses to uphold their responsibilities when states are failing so abjectly in theirs.

That is a reality of the contemporary global political economy. Certain countries have sought to establish competitive advantage by scrapping the most basic of human rights protections for those who quite legitimately seek work in those countries.

This cannot go on. And this Committee now has an opportunity to lead on how it should end.

Decent work in international supply chains requires a number of quite basic protections in law and policy. It requires freedom of association. It requires an end to discrimination. It requires an end to tied visas and recruitment fees. It requires honest and sufficient systems of labour inspections to ensure that unscrupulous employers are not exploiting or enslaving vulnerable workers. It requires honest and sufficient systems of health and safety inspections so that poor people do not have to live with the threat that their working days may end by being burned to death, or crushed by collapsing concrete, as they toil to satisfy Northern hemisphere demands for cheap goods.

As a board member of the Ethical Trading Initiative in the UK I know that many business leaders, like all people of conscience, crave governments to put in place measures such as these to level the playing field by compelling unscrupulous employers to act with a modicum of decency.

So I respectfully but strongly suggest that this Committee must act to advance Sustainable Development Goal 8 by entering into a standard setting process on decent work in global supply chains to establish an international framework within which systemic risks and abuses can be addressed.

If it fails to do so then we will have failed at the first on the promise of a better world that these Development Goals make. And vulnerable workers will, for years to come, pay for that failure with the destruction of their hopes and loss of their lives.

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