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Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

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The recently adopted UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights represent a strong international consensus on how to tackle the rise in business-related human rights abuses. To help bring them to life, the TUC has developed a set of recommendations for the UK government and other actors under each of the 31 Guiding Principles.

Striking Burmese workersDownload the TUC's recommendations on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

(Striking workers at the Sunny clothing factory in Rangoon, Burma June 2012. Photo courtesy of: Min Min Oo / Mizzima)

What are the UN Guiding Principles?

In May last year, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the 'Guiding Principles'). Developed over a six year period, by John Ruggie, the UN Special Rapporteur on Business and Human Rights, this framework represents a strong international consensus to deal with what he calls the 'governance gaps' of globalisation: where the scope and impact of business has vastly outgrown the ability of societies to manage their adverse consequences.

To address this rise in business-related human rights abuses, Ruggie proposes three 'pillars' to guide action: firstly, states should fulfil their 'duty to protect' people under international human rights law. Secondly, businesses should meet their 'responsibility to respect' the human rights of those affected by their activities. And thirdly, those affected by business-related harm should have access to effective remedy.

To meet their 'responsibility to respect', Ruggie proposes that businesses should identify and address any adverse human rights impacts they have on workers and communities through a continual process he calls 'human rights due diligence'. 'Human Rights' includes, at a minimum, the ILO's Core Labour Standards as well other key rights at work around pay, hours, health and safety and the right to strike.

What do they mean for trade unions?

The Guiding Principles are potentially important for trade unions in a number of respects. Firstly, the Guiding Principles helpfully clarify the different roles and responsibilities of the state and business. It is the duties of states to enact and implement laws and policies to protect against human rights abuse. And businesses should not decide what their responsibilities to society are - as many CSR policies do - but instead should meet their 'responsibility to respect' the human rights of all people affected by their operations.

Secondly, the Guiding Principles call on businesses to prevent their negative human rights impacts wherever they occur, even beyond the direct employment relationship. This could include workers in jobs that business outsourcing has made insecure, low paid, and dangerous. For example, if a UK supermarket's purchasing practices are denying an agricultural worker her legal wage or resulting in unsafe working conditions, then it needs to act to prevent that irrespective of whether or not she is directly employed by them.

Thirdly, the Guiding Principles are not legally binding, but a can be a strong advocacy tool to improve existing rules and policies, given the strong backing for them from governments, employers, trade unions and other civil society organisations. For example, the TUC worked with the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) to secure language from the Guiding Principles in the recently update of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Unions have also begun including the Guiding Principles in collective bargaining and global framework agreement with multinational companies.

How should they be implemented in the UK?

The TUC's position paper on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights outlines recommendations under the Guiding Principles which the UK government and other actors are encouraged to adopt.

The International Trade Union Confederation has also produced a briefing note and a longer guide for trade unions on the UN Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.