Any of our business? Human Rights and the UK private sector - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents


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".[60] 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 agencies);
  • 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.

Positive impacts

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 the world…Such examples demonstrate that the considerable global power of business, when harnessed responsibly, can help support and enhance human rights.[61]

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.[62] 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.[63]

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".[64] Tesco said:

    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.[65]

46. Michael Wills MP, the Minister for Human Rights, saw a positive role for businesses in promoting a human rights culture in the UK.[66]

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, below.

Negative impacts

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.[67] 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 public.

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.


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.[68] 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.[69]

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.[70] 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 services …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. [71]

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 strand.[72]

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.[73] We consider some of these issues in Chapter 6, below.


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.[74]

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 abuses.[75] […] 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.[76]

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.[77] 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. [78]

Labour rights

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".[79] 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).[80]

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 corporations…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.[81]

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.[82]

Indigenous People

61. Our attention was also drawn to the rights of indigenous peoples who may be affected by overseas projects.[83] 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 Enterprises.[84] Action Aid said:

    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 and livelihood
  • 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 rights. […][85]

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.[86]


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.[87] 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 company's performance.[88]

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 companies:

    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.[89]

Environmental issues

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.[90]

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[91] to operations in a country where human rights are abused and companies provide financial support to that country and profit from its operations there.[92] 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 for them.[93]

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.[94] 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.[95]

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.[96] 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.[97]

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.[98]

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 host government…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.[99]

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.[100] 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

61   Ev 321. See also Ev 270 Back

62   Ev 164 Back

63   Ev 319 Back

64   Ev 168 Back

65   Ev 312 Back

66   Q355 Back

67   The terms of reference of the JCHR expressly preclude the consideration of individual cases:Standing Order 152B, House of Commons Standing Orders, 2009. Back

68   Ev 280 Back

69   See for example, Ev 98; Ev 286; Ev 291; Ev 293 Back

70   See for example, Ev 286, Ev 292 Back

71   Ev 297 Back

72   Ev 297 Back

73   See for example, Ev 241 Back

74   Ev 108 Back

75   Ev 230 Back

76   Ev 230 Back

77   See for example, Ev 211 Back

78   See for example, Ev 114 Back

79   See for example, Ev 119; Ev 168 Back

80   Ev 119 Back

81   Ev 132 Back

82   Ev114 Back

83   Ev 161, paras 1 - 10; Ev 174  Back

84   Final Statement, Complaint by Survival International against Vedanta Plc, 25 September 2009.For further information, see For the role of th e UK National Contact Point, see below para 76. Back

85   Ev 137, para 18 Back

86   Ev 161 Back

87   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

88   Glaxo Smith Kline, Press Release, Glaxo Smith Kline Statement in Response to Paul Hunt's Report on GSK, June 2009. Back

89   Ev 199, para 3.4 Back

90   Ev 179 Back

91   See for example, Ev 107, Ev 288, Ev 301. Back

92   Ev 107, page 2 Back

93   Ev 110. This case study, in Equador is also covered by Dr Mika Peck, Ev 119. Back

94   Ev 164 Back

95   Ev 25, para 4.2 Back

96   Ev 121 Back

97   Ev 110. See also Ev 119, Ev 164, Ev 179, Ev 182, Ev 189 Back

98   Ev 164 Back

99   Ev 231 Back

100   Ruggie Report 2009, para 43. Back

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Prepared 16 December 2009