Human Rights in the Supply Chain: A Shared Challenge

BSR’s recent Human Rights Working Group session brought together two dozen participants from 16 companies to discuss both best practices and challenges associated with implementing the United Nation’s Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. After two days of rich discussions, it became apparent that…

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July 16, 2014
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BSR’s recent Human Rights Working Group session brought together two dozen participants from 16 companies to discuss both best practices and challenges associated with implementing the United Nation’s Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights.

After two days of rich discussions, it became apparent that addressing human rights violations in supply chains is a shared challenge, but also a priority in every sector. Like all participants, I came away with many valuable insights from the discussions. Three stand out in particular:

1. Human rights violations can occur where one least expects. One BSR member from the food, beverage, and agriculture sector described a recent audit of suppliers in Southeast Asia, where she was surprised to discover the worst practices at the site she had expected to perform best. The factory’s own management had never visited the migrant worker living quarters, but auditors found substandard living conditions. Following the audit, the company strengthened its responsible sourcing compliance and audit system, taking steps such as adding provisions protecting the rights of migrant workers to its code of conduct.

To me, this story underscored the importance of robust risk-assessment and prioritization models as part of a supply chain compliance and audit framework. It also highlights the importance of spot-checking to verify whether managers’ assumptions about low-risk suppliers are true.

2. The boundaries of responsibility remain unclear. The Guiding Principles state that the corporate responsibility to respect human rights requires businesses to prevent or mitigate human rights violations that they cause or contribute to as well as those that are “directly linked to their operations, products, or services by their business relationships.” But many supply chain managers are uncertain about what constitutes a direct link. In practice, this requirement is not always clear–many of the issues companies are held responsible for today, such as conflict minerals, are far removed from the company’s direct relationships. Nevertheless, companies must recognize the potential for their inadvertent involvement and proactively work to address these issues.

3. New resources are available to help: In an effort to help companies address their supply chain human rights risks we also reviewed a number of new resources: The Center for Business and Human Rights at the New York University Stern School of Business’ report “Business as Usual is Not Enough: Supply Chain and Sourcing after Rana Plaza” looks at business practices, governance, and infrastructure development as key elements of sustainability in the garment sector; Oxfam’s “Behind the Brands” campaign describes how the issue of land grabs is affecting the agricultural supply chain;  and a new collaborative initiative led jointly by BSR and Pact is helping companies address broader human rights issues related to conflict minerals.

The challenges involved in addressing human rights risks in a supply chain are many, but BSR’s Human Rights Working Group will continue to collaborate to find cross-sector solutions. Our next meeting will focus on embedding human rights across the business through employee engagement, training, and other tools. For more information on this working group contact Faris Natour at: fnatour@bsr.org.