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G7 Trade Ministers’ strong stance against forced labour in supply chains is welcome, but must be followed by concrete action on forced labour and other human rights abuses says UN expert group

GENEVA (2 November 2021) – A Group of United Nations experts* welcomes the call made on 22 October by the G7 Trade Ministers to eradicate forced labour from global supply chains and provide access to protection and remedy for victims of forced labour. Issued in advance of the G20 leaders' summit, this clarion call for leading States to take action is a welcome step but one that requires decisive action, including robust regulation.

The statement issued by the G7 Trade Ministers highlights the global nature of this challenge, noting that tens of millions of people worldwide are subject to forced labour each day. It further calls for strong cooperation by States, multilateral institutions, businesses, and civil society toward ending the use of forced labour in global supply chains. Effective cooperation to this end, the G7 statement says, should be achieved through application of international standards, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights ("the Guiding Principles").

The UN experts consider that this statement represents a robust commitment from the G7 to implement the Guiding Principles as a key measure to help end forced labour. Going forward, these commitments should be followed by tangible and specific actions. The global community should use the Guiding Principles as a framework to address not only forced labour, but all business-related human rights abuses tied to both national and transnational supply chains.

The UN experts had anticipated that the G20, representing the largest 20 economies of the world, would follow the G7's lead and put human rights and responsible business as well as the prevention of trafficking and forced labor in supply chains, as core commitments. While the G20 leaders did recognize the importance of decent work in global supply chains, the majority of their communique focused instead on stable supply chains to provide the goods and services that their economies need. It is critical to resilient supply chains that people are treated with dignity and their rights are respected. This oversight represents a major gap. The G20 should follow the lead of the G7 in its commitment to rights-respecting supply chains.

Adopted by the UN's member states in 2011, the Guiding Principles are the globally agreed standard for addressing human rights challenges in business activities. A central element of the Guiding Principles is the expectation that business enterprises undertake human rights due diligence (HRDD), to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights in own activities and across value chains. Introduced by the Guiding Principles, it has seen a wide uptake in standards for responsible business conduct. HRDD is now at the centre of regulatory developments, with increasing backing from business and investors. The Working Group is encouraged by the current momentum toward mandatory human rights due diligence regimes across a growing number of jurisdictions, particularly in the EU.

Crucially, business enterprises should undertake HRDD to identify and address potential and actual forced labour as well as other rights impacts across their supply chains. As the Working Group has detailed before, a wide range of serious human rights abuses and violations, in all world regions, have been linked to supply chains, including unsafe working conditions, human trafficking, limits on freedom of association, lack of living wages, and employment discrimination. Moreover, these abuses are not limited to global supply chains, but occur in national supply chains and workplaces, and in all regions as well.

Looking ahead, further commitments and action will be needed from States around the world. The Working Group recently released a report taking stock of the Guiding Principles' first decade, and will soon publish a "roadmap for the next decade" setting out direction and key actions for scaling up more effective implementation of the Guiding Principles for the coming ten years. One key takeaway is that the time has come for mandatory HRDD (mHRDD) legislation, requiring companies to conduct HRDD in line with the Guiding Principles—a trend that has already begun in earnest. The Working Group has set out recommendations for mandatory measures to be effective, including the need to:

  • Be based on meaningful and inclusive stakeholder consultations.
  • Cover all internationally recognized human rights and all types of adverse human rights impacts.
  • Go beyond reporting regimes and require meaningful processes and outcomes.
  • Require businesses and States to take measures that facilitate access to effective justice and remedy as part of mHRDD; and
  • Set out clear compliance monitoring and enforcement structures and procedures that facilitate access to effective justice and remedy.

The UN experts are encouraged that the G7 has identified supply chain-related human rights abuses as an urgent issue to be tackled by the global community in the coming years. Now, fully realizing this goal will require enhanced action and accountability: mHRDD legislation coupled with robust national action plans are key steps that States must implement to make this goal a reality. The G7 nations should commit to these actions, as should the G20 leaders. Eradicating human rights abuse from global and national supply chains and expanding application of the Guiding Principles to all areas of the economy will require a broad international coalition. The G7 and G20 countries have a unique opportunity to show leadership in strengthening action and coherence to ensure that supply chains are free from human rights abuses.

*The following UN human rights mandates joined this statement:

Lead: Working Group on Business and Human Rights: Mr. Surya Deva (Chairperson), Ms. Elżbieta Karska (Vice-Chairperson), Mr. Githu Muigai, Mr. Dante Pesce, and Ms. Anita Ramasastry;

Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, Mr. Tomoya Obokata;

Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Mr. O livier De Schutter;

Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Mr. Felipe González Morales ; and

Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, Ms. Siobhán Mullally.