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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 123)



  Q120  Chairman: Owen, do you want to add anything, or Janet?

  Ms Williamson: Just a couple of quick points. Building on the comments that Keith was making about the Commission and the need for there to be obligations on business specifically in relation to human rights, we support the Ruggie framework which does set out distinct roles for states and for business and then looks at the issue of redress. In terms of the obligation of business, he talks about policies and impact assessments integration and tracking performance as all being necessary in order for business to carry out what he calls due diligence, in other words taking proactive steps to ensure that they are not abrogating human rights. Clearly it could be built into the mandate of a Commission to ensure that there were some clear obligations that they were monitoring and upholding. Secondly, to very much support and build on the points made about collective bargaining. If the UK Government wants to really prevent human rights and labour rights abuses overseas, one of the best things it could do would be to promote collective bargaining among UK companies that are operating overseas and ensure that they are promoting collective bargaining in their supply chains. It is the best way of raising labour standards and really the only reliable form of verification.

  Q121  Chairman: So the supply chains are the key, going all the way to the Far East or wherever it happens to be, in terms of raising labour standards through collective bargaining?

  Ms Williamson: I think collective bargaining is the starting point for raising labour standards. Companies spend thousands of pounds on audits and so on to try to monitor labour standards with the best of intentions but really the only reliable verification is through collective bargaining and allowing workers to organise themselves and to speak with their own voices about what is happening and their own experiences, there is really no substitute for that.

  Q122  Chairman: We come to the point that Owen was debating earlier on about difficulties in some of the rather more oppressive countries around the world where it is very difficult to organise.

  Mr Tudor: Yes but it is possible, as I indicated, to find solutions on that. John mentioned the right to strike in South Africa. One of the most effective uses of that power was when South African dock workers refused recently to unload Chinese arms aimed for the Zimbabwe regime, an action which I should say—and maybe I am using the term perhaps in a slightly old-fashioned way—both main parties in Britain indicated was absolutely supportable and exactly the right thing to do but which would of course have been illegal under the laws of the United Kingdom, so in terms of the discussion of why governments of either party have not moved on this issue, I think that throws into sharp relief some of the inconsistencies involved.

  Q123  Chairman: Illegal contemplation of furtherance of a trade dispute.

  Professor Ewing: Can I make one footnote to finish. Britain is now the only country of the original 15 Member States where less than half the workforce is covered by collective agreements. It is now down to 33 per cent and falling. This is an urgent problem at a time when the right to bargain collectively is now recognised by the European Court of Human rights as a fundamental human right.

  Chairman: Thank you all very much. The Committee stands adjourned.

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Prepared 16 December 2009