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10 years of the UNGPs

10 years on from the United Nations introducing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the UNGPs), the Ethical Trading Initiative’s Clare Fitton looks at what has changed – and what’s next to drive more responsible business practices.

How did we arrive here?

The run up to the UNGPs was littered with attempts to find a universal code of conduct for companies to respect human rights that both governments and businesses could agree to. The UNGPs were the outcome of these attempts – a “softer” approach of a voluntary framework and guidelines for businesses, instead of strict legislation. This leaves the legal duty to protect human rights with countries and governments, but businesses still have a responsibility to respect these rights.

Voluntary standards will never be strong enough to force business practices to change enough to ensure that workers are not being exploited and have access to fair compensation for harms done. But even so, the UNGPs have had a significant impact and driven progress on human rights at work.

What has changed in the past decade

  • Most obviously, the conversation around businesses’ supply chain obligations to workers has changed, and consequently, the associated practices of businesses have improved.
  • “Human rights due diligence” as a process is now defined, understood and practised by companies all over the world. ETI’s own Human Rights Due Diligence Framework is our most requested and referenced guidance, and we see companies working hard to embed the framework into their practices.
  • More and, crucially, more useful data is now gathered, analysed and informing business decisions, as many companies work much closer with their suppliers to tackle the root causes of issues and address their own responsibilities and the consequences of their buying practices.
  • Countries around the world have begun to introduce legislation that makes some of the UNGPs a legal requirement, such as conducting supply chain due diligence.

What’s next for responsible business guidelines?

We’re still far from a time where responsible business operations are the norm. Even industry-leading companies often think in terms of risk to business rather than risk to workers, and some global businesses still do not engage very much with human rights issues in their supply chains.

It has become increasingly clear that systemic change for workers can only be achieved by tougher regulation, and better enforcement where laws already exist.

  • We need a level playing field where corporate refusal to accept and act on the responsibility to respect human rights has legal and financial consequences for businesses, and allows both workers and businesses to benefit from taking human rights seriously.
  • Remediation remains the Pillar (area) of the UNGPs that is granted the least attention, and it’s often cited as the hardest one for companies to engage in. ETI’s Access to Remedy –A Practical Guide to Companies provides a methodology to get started, and it is very encouraging to see more robust and transparent modern slavery statements providing case studies and examples of how businesses are working to ensure workers are fairly and swiftly provided fair compensation where their rights have been violated.

The UNGPs have both paved the way and provided the template for harder legislation. Early attempts to incorporate the UNGPs in national law, such as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, the USA’s and EU’s Conflict Minerals legislation, and the Dutch Child Labour Due Diligence law, have trialled and tweaked some of the approaches that governments can take.

We recommend to all companies that they start conducting and reporting on human rights due diligence practices now.  This will help businesses to prepare for the legislation that will definitely be introduced in the coming years – but more importantly, it will help organisations to protect and respect human rights throughout their activities and supply chains.

The UNGPs have provided us with the framework, now we all need to our bit: governments, businesses, investors, and consumers. Together we can improve lives for workers and create a corporate environment that rewards care of human life.

Learn more about the key legislation driving responsible business practices

Sedex has worked with the ETI for many years – we use their Base Code in our SMETA social audit methodology. The ETI Base Code is an internationally recognised code of labour standards for businesses, founded on the conventions of the International Labour Organization.