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

Memorandum submitted by Oxfam GB


  1.1  Oxfam GB welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence for consideration by the Joint Committee on Business and Human Rights' in its Inquiry into Business and Human Rights. Our submission generally reflects the interests and concerns of Oxfam International, to which Oxfam GB is affiliated, and which is also supporting a separate submission to this inquiry prepared by the Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School.

1.2  Oxfam GB's purpose is to work with others to overcome global poverty and suffering. We seek to do so by working on three fronts: responding to humanitarian emergencies; developing programmes and solutions that empower people to work their way out of poverty, and campaigning to achieve lasting change.

  1.3  Oxfam believes that everyone has:

    — The right to life and security.

    — The right to a sustainable livelihood.

    — The right to basic social services.

    — The right to be heard.

    — The right to equity.

  We work at all levels from global to local, including national governments, global institutions, as well as with local communities and individuals, with the aim of ensuring that people's rights are fulfilled and protected.

  1.4  For more than 20 years, Oxfam GB has been concerned about the interaction between business and human rights, and has been advocating in support of public policy frameworks that regulate business activities to ensure that they do not undermine human rights.

  1.5  We have also analysed a number of business sectors and proposed changes in company policies and practices either to address negative impacts on people's rights, and/or to promote the fulfilment of people's rights, for example, through the development of new business models. This work has covered the extractives, retail, pharmaceutical, coffee and fast-moving consumer goods sectors. Most recently, Oxfam has been examining the role and responsibilities of business in tackling climate change.i

  1.6  This submission focuses on a number of issues on which Oxfam is working that are relevant to the topic of this inquiry.


  2.1  The impacts of climate change are already undermining, and will increasingly undermine, millions of people's rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter and culture.ii Climate change will affect everyone but the human costs will be borne overwhelmingly by the world's poorest people—precisely those least responsible for causing it. Oxfam believes that creating and implementing progressive public policy on climate change is core but government cannot act without support and action from the private sector, both in reducing emissions and in implementing effective adaptation strategies, particularly in developing countries.

  2.2  Oxfam's recent paper—"The right to survive in a changing climate"—estimates that, driven by upward trends in the number of climate-related disasters and human vulnerability to them, by 2015 the average number of people affected each year by climate-related disasters could increase by over 50% to 375 million.iii People's vulnerability is inextricably linked with poverty and their (in)ability to realise their rights. In rich countries, an average of 23 people die in any given disaster, in least-developed countries, the average is 1,052 due, for example, to the reality that poor people live in poorly constructed homes, often on land more exposed to hazards such as floods, droughts, or landslides, and in areas without effective health services or infrastructure.

  2.3  Oxfam believes that the primary responsibility for tackling climate change lies with industrialised countries, which must take urgent action to:

    — stop harming—by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2020; and

    — start helping—by accepting their obligations to pay for adaptation in the developing world—at least $50 billion a year.

  So far, industrialised-country action has been nowhere near what is required, with the result that hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods from now and into the future are at risk. It will be essential for the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009 to agree an adequate and fair global deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012.

  2.4  Companies can play a critical role in ensuring that human rights are not undermined by the impacts of climate change by using their considerable political influence to encourage and support governments to create and implement a successful post-2012 deal. In May 2009, the World Business Summit on Climate Change will provide a key opportunity for companies to call for bold action in the international climate change negotiations, and to support the formation and implementation of the progressive policies needed to make this possible.

  2.5  In addition, all companies have a responsibility to ensure that they respect people's rights in the context of climate change by:

    — setting ambitious targets to cut their own absolute emissions;

    — ensuring that their mitigation or adaptation projects do not undermine people's rights, either due to the technologies they use, or due to implementing them without consulting affected communities; and

    — refraining from lobbying to block effective regulation or agreements that aim to tackle climate change.

  2.6  Companies aiming to promote human rights should:

    — call on governments to show leadership in setting adequate emissions targets;

    — create and disseminate technologies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, such as renewable energy systems and energy-efficient appliances;

    — create appropriate, affordable and accessible technologies for adaptation, such as small-scale irrigation, drought-tolerant seeds, medicines, weather-related insurance, as relevant; and

    — contribute to building community resilience—companies that source and sell globally should ensure that vulnerable communities integral to their supply chains—such as farmers, workers and consumers—build their resilience to climate-change impacts.


  3.1  While governments have the primary responsibility for ensuring people's right to access to health care services, the role of the pharmaceutical industry in providing a critical element of health care—access to affordable essential medicines—carries its own responsibilities.

  3.2  According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health: "almost 2 billion people lack access to essential medicines. Improving access to existing medicines could save 10 million lives each year, four million of them in Africa and South-East Asia. Access to medicines is characterised by profound global inequity. 15% of the world's population consumes over 90% of the world's pharmaceuticals, by value".iv

  3.3  In many developing countries, health insurance coverage is virtually non-existent for poor people, making medicines the largest household expense after food. In Brazil, for example, the cost of medicines absorbs up to 82.5% of out-of-pocket expenses for the poorest people.v In addition global investment in research and development for treatment of diseases that primarily affect developing countries is seriously A critical reason for the lack of availability of suitable drugs that meet the needs of poor people is the minimal resources that the pharmaceutical research-based industry allocate to research in this area.

  3.4  This situation is exacerbated by a global intellectual property regime that grants 20 year patents to reward the results of research and development (R&D) by pharmaceutical companies, effectively giving companies the freedom to set prices. This also delays the entry of generic medicines into markets upon which many governments and households depend.vii 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 drug companies themselves.viii

  3.5  Companies should implement flexible intellectual property and pricing policies that properly reflect the needs and the purchasing power of the poor. They should also contribute to and collaborate in R&D to address the dearth of dedicated products for diseases that predominantly affect developing countries, and develop drug formulations that are applicable and usable in the developing world. Although there has been some welcome progress on R&D and reducing prices by some companies, most notably GSK who announced in February that it will cut the price of all its medicine to the world's poorest 52 countries, the pharmaceutical industry has generally much further to go to fulfill its responsibilities to ensure people's right to affordable essential medicines.ix


  4.1  Oxfam's "Trading Away Our Rights" campaignx highlighted that companies often fail to take responsibility for the impact of their activities on the rights of people involved along their supply and distribution/retail chains. Our research with partners in 12 countries, involved interviews with hundreds of women workers and many farm and factory managers, supply chain agents, retail and brand company staff, unions and government officials. It revealed how retailers (supermarkets and department stores) and clothing brands are using their power in supply chains systematically to push many costs and risks of business on to producers, who in turn pass them on to working women.

  4.2  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. Pressured 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.

  4.3  Oxfam believes that it is the responsibility of companies—retailers and brands—to make respect for labour rights integral to their supply-chain business strategies, especially by addressing the impacts of their own sourcing and purchasing practices on the way that producers hire and treat their workers. In addition, producers and suppliers worldwide have a responsibility to provide decent jobs for their employees, including respect for workers' right to join trade unions and bargain collectively, and to eliminate discrimination against women workers.

  4.4  There are examples of companies that are taking some steps to improve working conditions in their supply chains. For example, in 2007, fashion retailer New Look began working with one of its biggest suppliers in Bangladesh to investigate ways to improve working conditions, for example by providing better estimates of future orders, to enable the factory to plan more effectively. After 18 months, the take-home pay of the lowest-paid workers in the factory, mainly women, had increased by 24%. As a result, the average value of the lowest paid workers' monthly package in July was more than 2.17 times the minimum wage, although this still falls significantly short of living wage estimates. Furthermore, workers were working 46% fewer overtime hours than before. Unsurprisingly, workers are keen to continue working at the factory, and labour turnover is far lower than the average in the Bangladesh garment factory. New Look is now working to extend this approach to other suppliers.xi

  4.5  Although, this and similar efforts have improved the working conditions of workers in some factories, individual voluntary company initiatives are insufficient to secure workers' rights across the board. The frequent failure of national governments to fulfill their duty to protect workers' rights in law and in practice, and to enforce international labour standards, allows irresponsible companies to continually undermine human rights.

  4.6  When companies actively seek to source from micro-enterprises and co-operatives in their supply chains, this has the potential to help large numbers of people realise their right to a sustainable livelihood. This potential is most likely to be realised where companies, often working with others, including governments, transfer the necessary skills, expertise and technology, and offer fair prices and other terms that will equitably share the value that is created.

  4.7  For example, many hotels in the Caribbean import large quantities of fresh produce from the United States, while local farmers struggle to make a living. With support from Oxfam, a group of co-operatives in St Lucia has become a trusted supplier of fresh produce for hotels and restaurants, including the Sandals' and Virgin Holidays' resorts. Sandals' costs have fallen as a result of the initiative, and it benefits from customer satisfaction with an authentic Caribbean dining experience. Oxfam GB plans to support measures to scale up this model to other islands as a means of promoting the right to a sustainable livelihood.xii


  5.1  As stated by the UN Special Representative, and as illustrated in the examples above, conflicts between business activities and the realisation of human rights are perpetuated by a series of governance gaps in our globalised world. In considering how best to address these gaps, Oxfam urges the Committee to focus on what steps the UK government can take to ensure the protection and encourage the promotion of human rights by UK companies operating at home and overseas.

  5.2  In this regard, the CORE Coalition's proposal to establish a UK Commission on Business, Human Rights and the Environment is garnering considerable interest and support among civil society groups, think tanks, academics and lawyers. Oxfam commends this proposal to the Committee for serious consideration in its Inquiry.


i  See

ii  Oxfam (2008) Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy, Oxford: Oxfam.

iii  Oxfam (2009) The Right to Survive in a Changing Climate, Background Paper, Oxford: Oxfam.

iv  P Hunt (2007) "Human Rights Guidelines for Pharmaceutical Companies in relation to Access to Medicines". Draft for Consultation Prepared by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health. See:

v  M A Dominguez Uga and I Soares Santos (2007) "An Analysis Of Equity In Brazilian Health System Financing", Health Affairs 26 (4): 1017.

vi  Only US $1 out of every US $100,000 spent worldwide on biomedical research and product development goes into R&D to combat neglected tropical diseases (HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria are not included). Over 1 billion people—one sixth of the world's population—suffer from one or more neglected tropical diseases.

vii  Generic medicines are typically between 20 to 90% cheaper than originator drugs. European Generics Medicines Association at

viii  Oxfam (2006) "Patents versus Patients: Five years after the Doha Declaration", Oxfam Briefing Paper No. 95, Oxford: Oxfam.

ix  See Oxfam (2007), Investing for Life: Meeting Poor People's Needs for Access to Medicines through Responsible Business Practices, Oxford: Oxfam.

See "GSK breaks industry ranks to improve access to medicines", Oxfam Press Release, 16 February 2009.

x  Oxfam (2004) Trading Away Our Rights: Women working in global supply chains, Oxford: Oxfam.

xi  New Look (2008) "New Look's Commitment to Ethical Trade",;

R Hurst, M Buttle, and J Sandards (2009) Getting Smarter: Ethical Trading in the Downturn, available from

xii  See for more information.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 16 December 2009