People worldwide are demanding corporations are held responsible for human rights abuses and environmental degradation. In April 2013, more than 1,000 workers died in a clothing factory building that collapsed in Bangladesh due to precarious safety conditions. Rana Plaza produced garments for big fast fashion companies such as Primark, which generated a wave of protests and discontent. The Rana Plaza disaster was not the first worldwide known example of corporate abuses in global value chains. Back in the 90s, emblematic cases such as Nike’s sweatshops in China and the catastrophic traces of the oil giant Shell in Nigeria turned the spotlight on the negative impacts transnational corporations can have.
In response, voluntary initiatives spread through guidelines and multi-stakeholder platforms in international institutions, such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Those voluntary initiatives advocate for companies’ responsibility to investigate the potentially harmful consequences of their business activities to prevent and act accordingly to international human rights and environmental standards. Along the same line, private certification schemes pursuing responsible consumption have widely spread, among others, the well-known Fairtrade movement on dignifying workers’ conditions.
Voluntary does not equal mandatory, particularly when businesses operate in countries with weak governance structures and lower legal protection standards. Companies move abroad to outsource natural resources or simply to lower production costs, such as salaries. Generally, developing countries compete to attract foreign investment. Usually, those states have lower environmental and labor standards in place and limited capacity or willingness to control the implementation of the norms. On top of that, the legal landscape has allowed the reproduction of impunity when victims asking for remedy are limited to national courts, and parent companies, where the headquarters are, are protected by their home countries.
The international campaign “Justice is Everybody’s Business” addresses impunity and advocates for mandatory legislation to hold corporations accountable for their actions anywhere and at any value chain stage. The campaign was launched in October 2021, resulting from a coalition of more than 100 civil society and trade union organizations. It now concentrates on the European Union’s approval process of the 2022 Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive proposal. Last month, I had the opportunity to interview Flávia Cieplinski from Jordens Vänner – Friends of Earth Sweden – an organization that is a part of the coalition leading this campaign that demands respect for human rights, environmental and climate justice for workers and local communities.
Demonstrations in Brussels, part of the Justice is Everybody’s Business campaign, September 2022. Photo by Friends of the Earth Europe, Flickr
The triple planetary crisis of pollution, biodiversity loss, and human-induced climate change requires a response now. The growing demand for natural resources increases the pressure on local communities whose livelihoods depend on the access and control of their land. Examples of these critical issues include abuses of indigenous peoples´ rights in the Brazilian Amazon, marginalized local communities affected by land-grabbing from agro-business and extractive projects in Mozambique, and the criminalization of environmental human rights defenders in Guatemala. Only in 2021, 76 leaders were murdered for defending their communities against harmful business activities for the green transition (e.g., mining, hydropower, wind power plants). From her experience with organizations in Latin America and Africa, Flávia reminded me of the urgency to take action and empower grassroots organizations.
For 20 years, the Business & Resource Center has documented allegations of abuses of companies worldwide in the field of labor rights, natural resources, technology, human rights defenders, climate justice, and gender. Topics on the front page include modern slavery, digital freedom, migrant workers’ conditions, the criminalization of defenders, and mining for the energy transition. In this complex scenario, justice is everybody’s business.
Some Western European countries have recently approved national legislation to regulate the operations and business partnerships abroad of companies domiciled in their territories. Examples of that in Europe are France (2017), the UK (2015), Germany (2021), and Norway (2022). At the European Union (EU) level, the proposal for a Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive is now under debate. The Directive covers human rights and environmental risks associated with business conduct and partnership within and outside the EU. The normative proposal aims to strengthen the responsibility of certain companies (depending on their revenues and size) to investigate the impacts of their operations across the supply chain and plan accordingly to mitigate those risks, all under the supervision of national administrative authorities.
The international campaign “Justice is Everybody’s Business” advocates for the adoption of the EU Directive. From Brussels to Gothenburg, several activities on the ground have been carried out to press political leaders at the national level and the EU Parliament to take action. In June 2023, the EU Parliament adopted its position and voted in favor of the Due Diligence Directive proposal. New negotiations between the Parliament, Council, and Commission will occur this summer.
Image by Justice is Everybody’s Business campaign
The ten demands of the “Justice is Everybody´s Business” coalition are clear. First, companies must respect workers’ human rights, prevent environmental degradation, and reduce emissions throughout their value chain. Second, businesses have to conduct due diligence (investigate the possible harmful consequences) on the environment and human rights of those involved in their operations and business relationships, consulting with local communities and obtaining their consent when required. Third, the campaign aims to empower rights-holders by pushing for legal systems that allow them to seek justice in EU courts. Despite the focus on the EU Directive, Flávia reminded me that this is a starting point for a higher goal: environmental and social justice in global value chains.
Voluntary mechanisms have failed to contain the environmental and human rights risks nor provide effective remedies to victims. For decades, the quest for companies´ accountability has been a latent and urgent claim. This April was the tenth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Still, nowadays, workers in Bangladesh (the second largest exporter of clothes internationally) claim the recognition of better labor conditions. Mandatory initiatives are an opportunity to promote respect for international business and human rights standards. On the one hand, companies get certainty about their responsibilities while States reaffirm their role of protecting citizens against abuses. On the other hand, victims and rights-holders get access to social and environmental justice.
Participation of the local network at demonstrations in Gothenburg, May 2023. Photo by Jordens Vänner
Note. The interview with Flávia Cieplinski from Friends of Earth Sweden closed with an invitation to join the local network on corporate accountability: “företagsmaktsgruppen” in Gothenburg. A group that is organized with the support of Jordens Vänner as part of the campaign on “Justice is Everybody’s Business.” The activist group organizes events and small actions to advocate for the approval of the EU Corporate Due Diligence Directive.