Companies in the global supply chain often neglect human rights, incurring in labor rights abuses. When corporate human rights responsibility is not respected, consequences could be disastrous for the workers. 

Starting from its definition, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights means to avoid infringing on the rights of others and addressing adverse impacts that may occur. Already in 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the first global standards for the protection of human rights in business activities with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

These principles are based on three pillars: the State duty to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and the right of victims to access an effective remedy. However, the principles do not create new obligations, but they rather elaborate on already existing practices and legal remedies enforced by States.

The Guiding Principles have gained acceptance also in the European Union that in 2014 welcomed the UN principles in a Declaration expressing support for their implementation. This was also followed in 2016 by the Recommendationadopted by the Committee of Ministers that provided national governments in the EU with guidelines to prevent and remedy human rights violations by business enterprises.

In addition, earlier this year, in order to strengthen the regional legislations regulating the respect of the human rights of labor workers, new efforts have been made by the EU to put forward draft law on corporate human rights responsibility. As a matter of facts, on the 8th of March the European Parliament called for the “urgent adoption of binding requirements” in the EU to prevent and address violations of human rights, environmental impact and promote good governance in supply chains. 

These requirements are the response to the negative effect of business malpractices on labor rights, health and safety at work and the use of child labor by some business enterprises. Companies’ failure to protect and promote worker’s rights have a more dramatic impact on those who work at lowest rings of the supply chain.

Dramatic episodes have been registered in recent years like the 2013 disaster of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh where a building hosting five garment factories collapsed and costed the life of 1100 workers and injured other 2000. Or again, in 2019, the collapse of an iron ore tailing dam with mineral waste in Brazil, that caused the death of 250 people and the consequent unleashing of a wave of toxic sludge.  

However, even after these ambitious attempts, there are still governance and regulatory gaps at both the international and domestic level about what corporations do, can do and should do to protect workers’ human rights. For example, some national laws regulating this matter only oblige companies to conduct systematic, ongoing human rights due diligence on their direct suppliers, not indirect suppliers, resulting is serious and menacing shortcomings.

In addition, also following some national standards, companies only have to conduct “incident-related” human rights due diligence when they have “substantiated knowledge” of potential abuses by suppliers further down the supply chain, causing serious abuses to never be prevented and addressed. 

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