A guest blog by Owen Tudor, Head of European and International Relations at the Trades Union Congress.
The TUC is backing Traidcraft’s campaign because we believe in justice for citizens and workers against the transnational corporations that dominate the global economy.
As part of the global trade union movement, we are in regular contact with people who suffer as a result of the actions of multinational companies. Habitats and communities are destroyed, child labour, modern slavery and discrimination are all too common. And workers face wage cuts, job intensification, insecurity and harassment when they try to form trade unions to fight for their rights.
Those corporations are no more fastidious about how they treat people at this end of global supply chains, either.
Trade unions provide one route for people to secure and enforce their rights. But all over the world, collective bargaining and the right to strike are under attack, and not everyone is in a position to use those tools.
That’s why trade unions support measures to ensure that the human rights responsibilities of business – including those set out in the International Labour Organisation’s conventions, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s guidelines on multinational enterprises, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGP) – can be enforced through international courts.
But until such courts are created, domestic courts need to fill the gap. Where British firms, or firms operating in Britain, abuse people’s rights either directly through operations at home or abroad, or through their supply chains, their victims should be able to seek redress through the UK courts.
This is central to the third pillar of the UNGP. The first two pillars cover the responsibilities of business and governments. And it is the third pillar - access to justice - which is widely considered to be the element of the UNGP that is least well developed in the UK.
The UK government needs to use the law to prosecute irresponsible companies, by removing practical and financial barriers that overseas victims and prosecutors face when seeking to hold companies to account through existing legal options, as well as filling the gaps in UK law.
Companies need to be held criminally liable for their actions abroad and for breaching their responsibilities abroad. The Bribery Act and the new Modern Slavery Act have begun to shift the law in that direction, but we need to go much further. And it needs to be clear that UK courts can hear cases against companies based or operating in this country.
Unions and our campaigning allies like Traidcraft will be pressing for reforms through Parliament, the European Parliament, and the current review of the UK National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Whilst there are other ways to get justice (like collective bargaining, in the case of trade unions), the courts must be available to ordinary people seeking to enforce their rights.