Inclusive workforce

Introducing the ILO’s Business and Human Rights Framework

Presentation by ILO Director, Dagmar Walter, at Inaugural UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights

Statement | New Delhi, India | 19 March 2019
Distinguished participants, partners and colleagues,

I am happy to represent the ILO in this session, which seeks to introduce the Business and Human Rights Framework. The ILO’s mandate – advancing social justice and promoting decent work -- contributes to the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework. Respecting human rights is key to competitive businesses, a productive workforce and just societies.

Our rights in every walk of life matter. As we spend a major part of our time in workplaces, labour rights play a central role. International Labour Standards, elaborated and adopted by the ILO tripartite constituents – governments, employers and workers – form part of human right

The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights –in its Principle no: 12, directly refers to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. It encompasses eight ILO core conventions regarding freedom of association and right to collective bargaining; non-discrimination and equal pay for equal work; elimination of forced labour and child labour.

Translation of this into action in the economic units or workplaces regardless of size, ownership, sector or country of operation, is where the crux of business and human rights will lie.

Today, the world of work is witnessing unprecedented transformational change driven by globalisation, new technology, climate change and demography, which compels us to re-visit the discourse on business and human rights and calls for a collective – not only government or worker or business - but as I said a COLLECTIVE global response to the disruptions they are causing in the world of work.

While strong labour governance institutions and informed interventions by workers organisations are critical enablers, the role of businesses is most important considering it is their management practises that have a direct impact on the fundamental rights of the workers as well as those in their supply chains. But the question is how do we drive businesses to internalise and promote fundamental rights of work?

Enforcement of national labour legislations and compliance with international standards is one track. But needs to be coupled with another track which is to recognise the business case for human rights, specifically labour rights. ILO’s work with businesses especially in global supply chains, including in South Asia, shows a strong correlation between productivity and working conditions.

We cannot underestimate the loss of reputation for the countries post man-made disasters primarily due to negligence, such as the Tazreen factory fire in Pakistan in 2012 or the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013.

Firms need to be convinced based on their performance-data, how low wages or long working hours or discrimination in the workplace or unsafe working conditions and others are resulting in productivity losses.

As we move from firm-level to the whole gamut of players in the global supply chain, is there also a business case for business and human rights, from a labour perspective?

Today, we are aware of a number of initiatives by lead buyers and brands, often in form of code of conducts and social audits. Most often the key drivers for these initiatives are reputational risk or ability to raise market access (e.g. through trade agreements) and finance. Here again, ILO through engagement with corporates such as H&M, INDITEX, COOP and others, including home-grown companies in this region such as Mahindra and Mahindra has demonstrated the business case by enabling them to increase profit, quality and delivery time, through promotion of better workforce management practises in the supply chains.

I would like to now draw your attention to an important dimension in the discourse of business and human rights – the invisible worker in the supply chain and the informal economy.

While some progress has been made by businesses globally to influence the operations of their first and to some extent second tier suppliers, penetration to lower tiers in the supply chain is necessary, especially in the South Asia region, where 77 percent of workers are in vulnerable working conditions.

Businesses also need to be mindful of how their operations affect the external environment, especially, the immediate community with particular focus on women, children, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups.

So how is ILO supporting in promoting labour rights? Let me elaborate. Firstly, as we all may know, the ILO is a standard-setting organization. By constituents developing these international labour standards, we articulate international joint expectations of governments, employers and workers.

When a member State ratifies a convention, it periodically reports on its progress and also gives it teeth by holding adequate provisions in law and practice.

The ILO’s independent supervisory bodies review the reports and recommend areas for improvement. They may address complaints submitted by either the workers’ or employers’ organizations. This way it directly impacts the legal and business environment of the countries in which you are operating. Many of you would already have seen the comments of the supervisory bodies as part of your due diligence.

Two relatively recent examples of changes brought about through the ILO supervisory mechanism, which could not have been resolved by any one company acting alone, include:
  1. the ILO Commission of Inquiry on Myanmar related to forced labour that, it is no exaggeration to say, made an important contribution to the democratization process in the country; ILO continues to engage with the Myanmar Government on strengthening enforcement of its labour legislation;
  2. ILO on-the-ground monitoring of forced child labour in cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan, which has led to significant reductions in the use of children in that sector.
The ILO instrument that speaks directly to businesses about what they can do to protect labour-related human rights is the Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration). The 2017 revision has provisions for due diligence in alignment with the UN Guiding Principles and has specific focus on meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders including workers’ organizations, and promotion of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The ILO also provides guidance and support to business more directly at the national and international levels:
  • The ILO Helpdesk for Business on International Labour Standards is a free and confidential service, which provides a comprehensive list of Questions and Answers on many decent work and human rights topics.
  • On-site coaching services have been specially designed to support the businesses, especially, small and medium enterprises to improve management practises and adopt employee-centric approach. More than 3000 factories in the supply chain of apparel, automobile, food processing and others across 12 countries, including Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, have reported productivity improvement of more than 20 per cent due to better workforce management as a result of ILO trainings. A direct impact has been on the quality of jobs of more than 2,000,000 workers engaged in these factories. South Asia region has emerged as a major supply chain hub with very high dependence on migrant labour, both within and between countries. ILO has been advocating for safe and informed migration and is working very closely with recruitment agencies and employers to address the protection of migrant workers.
  • Social dialogue and dispute resolution mechanisms are key to address labour rights. For example, the ILO has facilitated the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which is a five year legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure a safe working environment in the Bangladeshi RMG industry. Similarly, in India, ILO with its UN partners is contributing in the framing of the National Action Plan on Human Rights.
This year the ILO marks its centenary. The Organization came about on the premise of advancing social justice in the world of work. In the next century we have to do better! With the changing world of work, and rise of non-standard forms of employment, technological advancements, climate change, and shifts in demography – we have to be more mindful that the human-interest is not forgotten. That workers aren’t commodity, they must be granted quality jobs, dignified lives, and only then can we all continue to progress.

Lastly, we need to recognise the growing community of workers in the platform economy and the increasing blurring of the boundaries between employers and employees, which calls for protection of the rights of virtual, informal and invisible workers. Strengthening the business case for their rights, based on productivity data, will be key since businesses understand the language of figures.

Let me end by saying that a strong implementation of the UN Guiding Principles will catalyse the contribution by business in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals and together we can script a transformative story!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Thank you for your kind attention.