3 THE HUMAN RIGHTS IMPACTS
OF UK BUSINESS
42. Reflecting on a review of more than 300 reports
of alleged human rights abuses by corporations, the UN Special
Representative concluded in his 2008 report that "there are
few if any internationally recognized rights business cannot impact
- or be perceived to impact - in some manner".
Amongst the most significant are:
- the right to privacy in the workplace (e.g. the
limits of employer's rights to keep their employees under surveillance);
- the right to freedom of expression, including
the right to receive information;
- the right to physical security (including where
businesses engage private security firms or work with law enforcement
- health-related rights, including environmental
conditions and access to information about health impacts;
- the right to freedom of association and other
workplace rights, including conditions of employment and occupational
health and safety.
This range is reflected in the evidence we received.
43. In written evidence, Business in the Community
set out to demonstrate how businesses can enhance respect for
human rights through their activities:
As the role of business in society has grown,
human rights benefits have been derived in many locations through
job creation, economic regeneration and growth. This has seen
many improvements, particularly in respect of social and economic
rights, such as adequate standards of living for many people throughout
Such examples demonstrate that the considerable
global power of business, when harnessed responsibly, can help
support and enhance human rights.
44. Many of the businesses that sent us evidence
gave examples of the steps which it was taking to try to ensure
that their activities have a positive impact on the communities
in which it operate. For example BP told us that it had taken
a number of steps to change its business practices, including
incorporating human rights standards into its investment agreements.
The CBI told us that the positive impacts on UK business should
not be underestimated:
Businesses are one of the key building blocks
in society. They generate wealth, create jobs, supply goods and
services, provide tax revenues, raise living standards and help
lift people out of poverty.
45. A number of businesses wrote to tell us how they
incorporated human rights issues into their business practices.
For example, BP told us that human rights issues were "at
the heart of" its core values and said: "We must always
have regard to the human rights impact of those are involved with
and affected by our business activities".
Businesses have a responsibility to respect human
rights in the way in which they operate. This means having regard
for human rights both in their direct and indirect impacts on
individuals and companies.
46. Michael Wills MP, the Minister for Human Rights,
saw a positive role for businesses in promoting a human rights
culture in the UK.
47. We do not underestimate the significant and
positive contribution that businesses can make to the communities
in which they operate. This clearly has the capacity to enhance
the protection of the rights of employees, service users and other
local people. Businesses can support the state's ability to protect
the economic and social rights of individual, including for example,
the right to an adequate standard of living. However, we also
believe that businesses can play an important role in ensuring
that individual civil and political rights - including, for example,
freedom from inhuman treatment, freedom from forced labour and
unjustifiable discrimination, the right to privacy, freedom of
expression and the right to freedom of association, including
the rights of independent trade unions and their members - are
respected. We return to some of the proactive steps taken
by business to address their human rights impacts in Chapter 5,
48. We received a significant number of submissions
which alleged that UK businesses have acted in a way that compromises
the rights of individuals, both within the UK and overseas. This
Report will not repeat the detailed allegations made in the written
evidence. Where a business was drawn to our attention, we invited
it to submit its own evidence. Our terms of reference do not
permit us to conduct a full investigation into any specific allegations
against individuals and companies.
However, in the light of the seriousness of many of these claims,
we are persuaded that further action is necessary and we hope
that our conclusions and recommendations will contribute to advancing
the debate in the UK, both among parliamentarians and the wider
49. A number of broad themes emerge from the evidence.
For ease of reference, we set out a summary of the human rights
issues and allegations made against UK companies below.
ACTIVITIES IN THE UK
50. The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) told us that
the effects of business behaviour on the everyday aspects of individual
UK residents should not be underestimated.
Several issues relating to business activities in the UK were
raised by the CAB and other witnesses. These followed a number
of broad themes, which follow.
The application of the HRA 1998
51. Some witnesses argued that there was a need for
increased certainty in the application of the HRA 1998 to businesses
and their activities, particularly in relation to private bodies
performing public functions.
The impact of privatised public services
52. Witnesses told us that the provision of privatised
public services has a broad impact upon the rights of service
users and the ability to secure a remedy for breach of fundamental
rights. Some of
these services may fall outside the scope of the "public
function" test, but may yet have an impact on individuals'
abilities to secure access to their rights. CAB wrote:
Key public services can also be delivered through
market mechanisms, for example through public procurement. These
range from legal aid
to publicly funded work
training programmes - some of these services may not always be
[public functions] for the purposes of the HRA, but service failures
can have devastating consequences for peoples' rights in the UK.
Consumer services and human rights
53. Some witnesses argued that certain consumer services
have an impact on the ability of individuals to secure their fundamental
human rights, including the right to a home and to an adequate
standard of living. For example:
Consumers often depend on the financial and legal
sectors for the realisation of many key rights such as security
of the home and family, and access to the legal system. Regulation
of these sectors therefore needs to incorporate a human rights
Labour and trade union rights
54. Some witnesses argued that there was a need for
greater respect in the UK for labour and trades union rights,
particularly to fulfil the UK's international obligations in relation
to various International Labour Organisation standards.
We consider some of these issues in Chapter 6, below.
UK BUSINESS OVERSEAS
55. The bulk of the evidence we received relates
to the human rights impacts of UK companies in countries with
weaker governance than the UK. Sir Geoffrey Chandler, a former
Director of Shell International and the Founder Chair of the Amnesty
International Business and Human Rights Group, told us:
The globalisation of the world economy has made
the corporate sector a more important influence on human rights
for good or ill than almost any other constituency. Through its
spreading supply chains it touches directly the lives of millions.
56. Amnesty International added:
Failure to ensure that UK companies respect human
rights in all their operations can leave the poorest and most
vulnerable communities exposed to serious and repeated human rights
The reality of the current phase of globalisation is that while
multinational corporations today operate seamlessly across national
boundaries, the framework of laws, regulations and initiatives
that govern their activities remains piecemeal, fragmented and
unequal to the task of ensuring that companies respect human rights.
Business, security and the right to life
57. Witnesses raised particular concerns about the
involvement of local police, military, paramilitaries and private
security firms in providing security for major projects run by
UK companies overseas.
These concerns focused principally on the right to life and the
right to respect for physical integrity, but were associated with
allegations of broader breaches of other rights, including the
right to respect for private and family life, the right to freedom
of expression and the right to freedom of association. 
58. A significant number of submissions focused on
the importance of labour rights, both within the UK and overseas.
Several trades union and union organisations submitted evidence
on the importance of recognition for trades unions and the status
of trades union rights as "human rights".
These submissions principally referred to the right to freedom
of association as recognised in the ECHR and other international
human rights treaties. They also referred to the ILO Conventions
on the right to freedom of association and the right to collective
bargaining (Conventions 87 and 97).
59. Vigeo, a Corporate Social Responsibility rating
agency, undertook a Europe wide study and concluded:
Although many European companies commit to respect
basic labour rights, very few (UK companies included) have implemented
measures for ensuring the respect of basic labour rights within
their operations. Hence this is an area of improvement for international
In a recent study on European companies and
their respect of basic labour rights, Vigeo demonstrates that
British companies are more often involved in labour rights controversies
than companies from other European countries.
60. Many submissions focused on the alleged disparity
between the commitments offered by UK companies within the UK
and the commitments offered to employees overseas. A number
of examples were given of companies whose stated policies were
applied differently across borders with detrimental effects for
workers in third countries.
61. Our attention was also drawn to the rights of
indigenous peoples who may be affected by overseas projects.
For example, Action Aid submitted evidence about the operation
of Vedanta Resources Plc in Orissa, India. This case has recently
been subject to a negative statement by the UK National Contact
Point for non-compliance with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational
Vedanta's construction of an integrated aluminium
complex in the region has led to accusations of several human
rights violations including:
- The razing and displacement of indigenous villages
in violation of internationally recognised rights to property
- The proposed construction of a mine on Niyamgiri
mountain which is protected and considered sacred by the Kondh
tribal people thereby violating communal, cultural and religious
62. Survival told us about a number of other examples,
including an order of the Botswana High Court in favour of Kalahari
Bushmen preventing their eviction from their settlements in the
Kalahari, which had been threatened by the construction of a diamond
mine by a UK company. They also referred to a UK television company
which had apparently trespassed on tribal land in South America
allegedly causing illness and death, in order to make a reality
TV programme. They wrote:
There is no doubt that British companies frequently
exert an enormous impact on indigenous peoples in developing countries,
and that their activities escape effective regulation in both
the host country and the United Kingdom.
63. The Former UN Special Representative on Health,
Professor Paul Hunt, drew our attention to a number of issues
relating to the right to health and the activities of pharmaceutical
and healthcare companies. In 2009, he considered a number of
corporate social responsibility measures proposed by Glaxo Smith-Kline
(GSK) and made recommendations for improvement, including through
the appointment of an independent Ombudsman to review compliance
with its human rights responsibilities.
GSK reiterated its view that it has no legal obligation to take
action and that, in its view, an Ombudsman would not be able to
work without clear binding standards against which to judge the
64. Oxfam said that the health poverty suffered by
individuals in developing countries could be exacerbated by steps
taken by home states to protect the interests of their pharmaceutical
Despite agreement at the World Trade Organisation
that developing countries have the right to use safeguards in
intellectual property rules in order to protect public health,
the few attempts to use these safeguards to reduce the prices
of medicines have been at the expense of attracting huge pressure
from the US and EU governments and the drugs companies themselves.
65. A number of the issues raised by witnesses involved
the impact of major businesses on the environment. For example,
Oxfam GB wrote:
The impacts of climate change are already undermining
and will increasingly undermine, millions of people's rights to
life, security, food, water, health and culture.
Degrees of accountability
66. Witnesses drew a distinction between various
degrees of complicity in human rights abuse. They gave a range
of examples from direction, or inadequate supervision of subsidiaries
to operations in a country where human rights are abused and companies
provide financial support to that country and profit from its
For example, the Holly Hill Trust claimed that:
Typically UK mining companies don't carry out
human rights abuses themselves, but rely on small exploration
companies and para-military subcontractors to do the dirty work
67. A number of witnesses referred to the responsibility
of businesses in respect of their supply-chain, and the role of
contractors in the protection of human rights.
Oxfam argued that the purchasing practices and other activities
of UK companies could make a real difference to working conditions:
For many producers, faced with fluctuating orders
and falling prices, the solution is to hire workers on short-term
contracts, set excessive targets and sub-contract to sub-standard,
unseen producers. Pressurised to meet tight turnaround times,
they demand that workers put in long hours to meet shipping deadlines.
And to minimise resistance, they hire workers who are less likely
to join trade unions (young women, often migrants and immigrants)
and they intimidate or sack those who do stand up for their rights.
High-risk industries or activities
68. The impact of some types of industry (such as
those involved in the extraction of natural resources) or the
impact of activities in particularly dangerous areas (such as
conflict zones) may raise several inter-related human rights issues.
Several submissions focused on the impact of the extractive industries,
where the activities of companies and their associates or subsidiaries
may have a particularly severe impact on a local community.
69. The treatment of workers in the garment industries
in developing countries by UK companies was also raised. War
on Want referred to abuses including:
physical and verbal harassment, breaches of health
and safety standards, intimidation and imprisonment of trade union
[members], denial of the right to protest, excessive working hours
and unfair wages.
70. Businesses which operate in areas of military
conflict may be particularly open to allegations of human rights
abuse or implicated in disregard for human rights. For example,
Global Witness said:
Often in these conflict or high-risk areas the
is unable or unwilling to assume its responsibility
in safeguarding human rights. Thus, protections are weak and
companies are at a greater risk of committing and exacerbating
human rights violations. In these areas, gross human rights violations
take place and criminal activity often goes unchecked.
71. This was also reflected in the April 2009 Report
of the UN Special Representative, which concluded that specific
action was necessary to address business in conflict zones. Professor
Ruggie has convened a working group on conflict and is working
on a code of practice for companies in areas of conflict.
We return to this issue in Chapter 8, below.
60 Report of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General
on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and
other business enterprises, John Ruggie, 'Protect, Respect and
Remedy: a Framework for Business and Human Rights', UN Doc.A/HRC/8/5,
7 April 2008. Back
Ev 321. See also Ev 270 Back
Ev 164 Back
Ev 319 Back
Ev 168 Back
Ev 312 Back
The terms of reference of the JCHR expressly preclude the consideration
of individual cases:Standing Order 152B, House of Commons Standing
Orders, 2009. Back
Ev 280 Back
See for example, Ev 98; Ev 286; Ev 291; Ev 293 Back
See for example, Ev 286, Ev 292 Back
Ev 297 Back
Ev 297 Back
See for example, Ev 241 Back
Ev 108 Back
Ev 230 Back
Ev 230 Back
See for example, Ev 211 Back
See for example, Ev 114 Back
See for example, Ev 119; Ev 168 Back
Ev 119 Back
Ev 132 Back
Ev 161, paras 1 - 10; Ev 174 Back
Final Statement, Complaint by Survival International against Vedanta
Plc, 25 September 2009.For further information, see http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file53117.doc.
For the role of th e UK National Contact Point, see below para
Ev 137, para 18 Back
Ev 161 Back
Ev 364.See UN Special Rapporteuron Health, Annex, Mission to Glaxo
Smith Kline, 5 May 2009, UN Human Rights Council, A/HRC/11/12/Add.2 Back
Glaxo Smith Kline, Press Release, Glaxo Smith Kline Statement
in Response to Paul Hunt's Report on GSK, June 2009. Back
Ev 199, para 3.4 Back
Ev 179 Back
See for example, Ev 107, Ev 288, Ev 301. Back
Ev 107, page 2 Back
Ev 110. This case study, in Equador is also covered by Dr Mika
Peck, Ev 119. Back
Ev 164 Back
Ev 25, para 4.2 Back
Ev 121 Back
Ev 110. See also Ev 119, Ev 164, Ev 179, Ev 182, Ev 189 Back
Ev 164 Back
Ev 231 Back
Ruggie Report 2009, para 43. Back