Since 2008 the International Trade Union Confederation has been organising the World Day for Decent Work (WDDW) on 7 October. On WDDW 7 October 2014, David Joyce from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions reflects on what contribution the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can make towards the attainment of the decent work agenda.
The world is on an unsustainable path. Vast numbers of working people face insecurity in their jobs and the highest levels of inequality in living memory. One half of working families have experienced unemployment or reduced working hours in the past two years, while 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty. Basic human rights to union representation and collective bargaining are under threat in many countries and under direct attack in others. Employers are even trying to undermine the right to strike, by challenging decades of legal recognition for this most fundamental right at the ILO. Too many governments are failing to protect working people today, and failing to build a sustainable future for the generations to come. The Decent Work Agenda seems a distant dream for many.
The DFAT Forum on Human Rights on 7 November 2014, Dublin Castle is being organised around the theme of “Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” and is a very welcome focus as we embark upon the formulation of a national action plan on same. What contribution could their implementation make to achieving decent work for all?
The responsibility of business to respect human rights is a global standard of expected conduct for all business enterprises wherever they operate, here in Ireland or as far away as Myanmar. It exists independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfil their own human rights obligations, and does not diminish those obligations. And it exists over and above compliance with national laws and regulations protecting human rights.
The Guiding Principles define a basket of interrelated rights, including the right to join or form a trade union and the right to bargain collectively. What is entailed in the exercise of these human rights is well understood and established in legitimate and authoritative legal processes.
The Guiding Principles are important in that they clarify the different roles and responsibilities of states and businesses. Clearly it is the duty of the state to enact and implement laws and policies to protect against human rights abuses. And businesses should not decide what their responsibilities to society are – as many CSR policies do – but instead should meet their “responsibility to respect” the human rights of all people affected by their operations.
One of the useful contributions of a national action plan could be to shine a light on the revised OECD Guidelines on Multinational enterprises, which now incorporate this basket of rights to compliment the UN Guiding Principles. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises comprise a set of recommendations from Governments to MNEs on responsible business conduct. They apply to MNEs with headquarters in countries that have signed the Guidelines, wherever those MNEs operate and their business relationships, subsidiaries as well as suppliers, investors and other business partners.
A unique feature of the guidelines is a Government-backed complaints mechanism where potentially big business can be held to account for its impacts on workers and the environment. Under the Guidelines, each signatory government is required to set up a National Contact Point (NCP) – a government body hearing complaints and generally promoting the Guidelines. Out of the 40 or so signatory governments, barely a handful have functioning NCPs (the UK NCP is generally regarded as one of the best). The Irish NCP appears to be little more than a bullet point in the job description of an overworked civil servant in the Department of Jobs Enterprise and Innovation. Up to now, it has received 4 cases – hardly surprising given the lack of promotion and knowledge of the guidelines. You can read more about trade union cases brought to NCP’s and an evaluation of NCP performance on the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) website.
One of the most significant additions to the revised guidelines was the inclusion of the concept of “due diligence” in the text. Developed by the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, this concept requires an enterprise to identify and address the negative impacts it’s causing, wherever they occur. The process entails assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses as well as communicating how impacts are addressed, as illustrated below:
Elsewhere the new Guidelines have a new chapter on Human Rights. A comprehensive section on Employment and Industrial Relations also states that:
- “In the context of bona fide negotiations with workers’ representatives on conditions of employment, or while workers are exercising a right to organise, not threaten to transfer the whole or part of an operating unit from the country concerned nor transfer workers from the enterprises’ component entities in other countries in order to influence unfairly those negotiations or to hinder the exercise of a right to organise”
That kind of behaviour may sound familiar to trade union colleagues negotiating with MNEs here in Ireland.
Despite all these improvements, the biggest criticism of the guidelines is the fact that they are effectively unenforceable. However, they are a big step up from most CSR initiatives who tend address these issues by redefining freedom of association and do not focus on the responsibility of business enterprises or their adverse impacts on these human rights. They describe how business enterprises should:
- Respect the rights of workers to form or join a trade union by not doing anything that would have the effect of discouraging workers from exercising this right.
- Respect the right of workers to collective bargaining by not refusing any genuine opportunity to bargain collectively.
- Implement due diligence for the right to form or join a trade union by identifying and preventing anti-union policies and practices as well as mitigating the adverse impacts on the exercise of this right by other business activities and decisions;
- Implement Due diligence for the right to bargain collectively by recognising that business enterprises must be prepared to bargain under a wider range of structures in countries where the law and practice does not provide a well-defined framework for bargaining.
And they set out how industrial relations, a system which requires both trade unions and collective bargaining, can play important roles in both due diligence and in the remediation of adverse human rights impacts. So while not legally binding, they can be a strong advocacy tool to improve existing rules and policies. The TUC have outlined policy priorities under each of the 31 Guiding Principles which could usefully inform the development of our own national action plan. Such an approach could bring Decent Work for All a small step closer.