Our year in business and human rights: A letter from Phil Bloomer and Chris Jochnick
2022 marks the Resource Centre’s 20th anniversary. During this period, the growing global reach and influence of so many companies has irrevocably altered the business and human rights landscape: We have witnessed worrying disregard for workers at the bottom end of supply chains and communities upended by disrespectful company practice.
The past two decades have also seen progress in responsible business, with the introduction of ESG investing and development of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, alongside a growth in impactful social movements demanding action on climate and improved social justice.
The Resource Centre has grown from a ground-breaking database to a global organisation working alongside grassroots partners to effectively advocate for greater business respect for human rights.
We started the year supporting workers to navigate the tragic aftermath of poor business responses to the pandemic. We ended the year, in March 2022, with a new global economic crisis and war in Europe. These crises are large enough, but they also distracted global leaders from the drivers of these crises: unsustainable inequality of power and wealth; ecological crisis; and governance deficits nationally and multilaterally.
There is encouraging news: social movements for human rights continue to strengthen in many regions, despite multiple efforts to thwart them; responsible investment has ballooned and is a new lever for rights, and more responsible governments demonstrate a renewed appetite to shape markets to deliver greater shared prosperity and climate security.
The next 20 years will be critical – and we look forward to working in solidarity with partners and allies to further embed business respect for human rights.
Phil Bloomer, Executive Director
Chris Jochnick, Chair of the Board
Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
At a glance: Our impact in 2021/22
Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is fair, objective and data-driven. Our work with allies focuses on the rights of:
- Workers in global supply chains;
- Communities seeking responsible natural resource use and a just transition; and
- People to accountable digital technologies.
We act to amplify the voices of those facing abuse, especially human rights defenders and their communities, while promoting gender justice and corporate legal accountability.
To achieve this, we seek to increase transparency, build accountability, help strengthen movements, and influence decision-makers through partners and directly.
Our vision is a world where business respects human rights and provides redress for abuse, where people are leaders in shaping a rights-respecting and sustainable future for markets and business, and where shared prosperity through greater equality of power and wealth is enjoyed by all.
“You raise the profile and highlight the work of others leading struggles in this space, contextualise, analyse, enable others to draw on this to advance their own work, and at the same time are an activist organisation undertaking important research and analysis in your own right, convening and advocating in the right places on the right issues.” - Cindy Berman, Open Society Foundations
We work to strengthen partners, allies, and movements so that our collective work ensures businesses respect and advance human rights.
We build evidence to influence decision-makers in governments, investors and businesses towards effective laws, regulation and norms that transform exploitative business behaviour into a rights-respecting economic model.
We amplify and support the voices and work of partners, allies and movements to drive accountability for abuse.
Wage theft in global supply chains
Global brands’ immediate self-interest in the pandemic created untold suffering for women workers in their global supply chains. We worked with organisations across Asia to support workers to claim what is theirs, and gain decent work and a living wage.
In December 2021, it was reported that 400,000 workers in Karnataka, India had been receiving wages below the legal minimum since April 2020. Local unions and Worker Rights Consortium had long been negotiating behind the scenes to push fashion brands to address the "worst wage theft" ever documented in the global garment industry.
To add pressure, we used our company response mechanism (CRM) to ask brands sourcing from factories where workers were affected questions about the allegations of wage theft. All 22 companies we approached, including Abercrombie & Fitch, ASOS and Next, responded to us, with some shifting stances and committing to ensure workers receive owed wages. This action by brands demonstrated the impact our CRM model can have when used to complement partners at critical moments.
“I thought of killing myself, I thought of killing my children and setting them free from this torture.” - Garment worker Tahmina Azad describes the loss of her job in Bangladesh without owed wages and severance pay
Indigenous Peoples and transition mining in the Andes
The world stands on the brink of a new mining boom to supply the massive increase in metals required to power the green energy transition. But without human rights at the centre of renewable energy and transition mineral mining, we will see an ongoing increase in land and water grabs especially of Indigenous territories, provoking understandable opposition.
“Indigenous rights defenders frequently stand at the frontline of resistance to irresponsible mining operation and investment, and the first to face repression. ESG investors in the just transition should take note.” - Joan Carling, Director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI)
Along with organisations around the world, we work to ensure a fast transition to zero carbon economies, pressing for change in business models of renewable energy companies and mining companies to promote shared prosperity through co-ownership and co-benefit. Only with a strong social licence to operate can companies and investors help drive the speed and scale of the transition necessary to avert disaster.
Alongside over 70 Indigenous and grassroots organisations, we took part in the International Andean Forum on Transition Minerals in Puno, Peru, convened in December 2021 by Red Muqui, DHUMA (Human Rights & the Environment), and the Ministry of Justice. From this meeting, the Resource Centre established a partnership with the South Muqui Network which includes several organisations, including DHUMA in Puno. A few days after the Andean Forum, we delivered a two-day workshop on transition minerals and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) with the participation of 30 representatives of local communities, NGOs and grassroots organisations from Oruro, Cochabamba and Potosí in Bolivia. During the workshop the Resource Centre heard testimonies from local Indigenous (Aymara and Quechua) communities affected by copper and lithium companies in Oruro and Potosí. This was a two-way learning mission, sharing knowledge and effective tactics to drive corporate accountability.
Human rights defenders and SLAPPs: Company lawsuit against Honduran defenders dismissed
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are a tactic used by business actors who abuse the judicial system to harass and intimidate defenders of human rights, territory, and environment. In May 2021 we produced the first-ever global analysis of SLAPPs. A range of influential stakeholders publicly expressed their support, condemning the use of SLAPPs, including 44 investors with more than US$270bn in combined assets, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Concurrently, we launched the first-ever public database of cases that bear the hallmarks of SLAPPs, which currently includes 172 cases.
The use of SLAPPs has been identified as one of the main threats to the defence of human rights in business contexts in Latin America. In March 2021, seven environmental defenders who had protested against the activities of poultry company El Cortijo were violently arrested and charged after the company filed a lawsuit against them in Honduras. During the following legal process, we worked alongside local partners to amplify the case, including engaging directly with the company. The Court of Appeals definitively dismissed the company’s case and declared the defenders innocent.
Mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence in the EU
The EU is moving towards legislation for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence (mHREDD). It is a unique opportunity to ensure companies prioritise human rights, environmental protection, and long-term business sustainability. Strong legislation would address huge power imbalances faced by workers, communities, and civil society in their negotiations with business.
In December 2021 the Resource Centre coordinated a leaders’ statement to President von der Leyen to urge prompt publication when the EU Commission’s draft proposal was delayed and there was a risk it could disappear from the legislative calendar altogether. We also worked with partners, at both EU and international level, on a joint business and investor statement, released in February 2022, echoing concerns over the delay and reiterating private sector support for key elements of effective due diligence legislation, including full value chain coverage, going beyond tick-box approaches and with civil liability provisions for judicial remedy for victims. With over 100 signatories, it was the first business statement of its kind to voice support for the inclusion of civil liability provisions. We shared it widely with EU policy-makers and on social media.
When it was finally published on 23 February, the Resource Centre immediately collected NGO and other reactions to the draft, making it the only depository of commentaries to the proposal. We also published our own first reaction, which partners like the Danish Institute for Human Rights said was an instructive resource, and we collaborated on and co-signed joint reactions. Through this work we facilitated knowledge sharing and consensus building among NGOs and other institutions and leverage their voice in the political debate.
In October 2021, following consultations with over 60 HRDs and communities in collaboration with Front Line Defenders, IPRI, ProDESC and Global Witness, we highlighted the crucial need for including meaningful and safe stakeholder engagement in EU mHREDD legislation. Our policy brief was disseminated widely among EU policy-makers, and we organised meetings between HRDs from Kenya, Nepal and Mexico, EU cabinet representatives and the EU Special Representative on Human Rights. The briefing was endorsed by Vice President of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala, the UN Working Group and the UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs, as well as by businesses in a statement signed by almost 50 companies and investors.
As part of our effort to generate debates around mHREDD, particularly in the Global South, and ensure learning across experiences in various regions, we co-organised a webinar in March 2022 on the EU mHREDD Directive. With the support of our South Asia regional researcher and partnership with the Human Rights Business Network-India, our webinar showed the implications this legislation will have on businesses operating in India. Our China team is working to organise a similar discussion with a business association.
BREAKING: Over 100 companies & investors call for effective #EU corporate accountability law 📣— Business & Human Rights (@BHRRC) February 8, 2022
Signatories incl. @Danone, @IKEA, @avivainvestors, @ericsson & @VAUDE_sport call for #mHREDD with credible accountability mechanisms, including civil liability. 1/ pic.twitter.com/Rc3SKeZzag
FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Parallel Portal
Migrant workers from East Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia comprise 95% of the workforce in Qatar and are integral to the delivery of the upcoming FIFA World Cup. The serious abuses they have suffered, and continue to suffer, risk being the real legacy of the tournament.
Allegations documented include the deaths of thousands of workers due to health and safety failures, workers being trapped in jobs, recruitment fees, non-payment of wages, racial discrimination and conditions of modern slavery.
The Resource Centre's World Cup Parallel Portal was launched a year before the tournament kicks off, in November 2021. It includes data on football associations of all qualified teams and 19 declared FIFA Partners, World Cup Sponsors and Regional Sponsors; over 130 identified hotel properties which will be hosting fans; and the number and type of cases of alleged abuse linked to the eight stadiums that will host matches.
The Portal has allowed us to work closely with journalists planning reports on the World Cup. This includes the Dutch outlet NRC mapping out information on the allegations of labour abuse associated with the stadiums and hotels where the Dutch football team will play and stay, and a UK [Daily Mail] journalist covering the risks associated with the hotel, hotel brand and property owner where the English team will be accommodated.
Potential business and human rights impacts linked to the World Cup 2022 in Qatar gained media attention in Brazil, highlighting our outreach to the Brazilian Football Federation and probing the national team’s chosen hotel.
Through our conversations with the Norwegian Football Federation in December 2021 and February 2022, we learned that our 2021 report on Qatar's World Cup hotels was cited in their human rights working group quarterly report and that UEFA has been using the same report on risks to migrant workers:
“We were very impressed by your World Cup Parallel Portal and have found your research highly useful in our own work with human rights and the Qatar World Cup.” - Norwegian Football Federation
“BHRRC’s work has shed much-needed light on the exploitation of migrant workers in the hospitality sector in Qatar, which has largely evaded scrutiny for its labor practices. It’s exciting to see the relationships you’ve developed with field partners to increase the use of direct testimony from workers, which makes for a stronger narrative and provides an important counterbalance to companies’ self reporting.” - Humanity United
Investor engagement on extractive industries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Extractives projects are one of the main sources of human rights abuses in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with hazardous working conditions, labour rights abuses, effects on the health of local communities, and severe environmental impacts. In June 2021, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre released Digging in the Shadows, an analysis of the human rights policies and performance of the largest extractives projects in Armenia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. The report found serious allegations around violence and killings, labour rights violations, environmental destruction, displacement, and poisoning from toxic emissions. We engaged with Western investors and shareholders with stakes in those extractive projects in Armenia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan which face serious human rights allegations. This outreach in November 2021 was impactful—we received responses from 17 of the 20 investors, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) further investigated alleged abuses related to the projects it funds and provided clarification on allegations linked to Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC) in Armenia. The EBRD's response was made public on our website and was brought to the attention of major NGOs monitoring EBRD operations in the region.
"Going out" responsibly: The human rights impact of China's global investments
The global footprint of Chinese companies has increased rapidly since the Chinese Government initiated its “Going Out Policy” in 1999. Civil society and the media have reported an unfortunate increase in social, environmental and human rights violations, particularly related to Chinese energy, construction, and mining and metals companies. Our analysis of data collected between 2013 and 2020, published in 2021, revealed over 600 allegations of human rights abuse linked to Chinese business that were conducted abroad since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, which further accelerated Chinese Overseas Investment. The analysis was covered by multiple media outlets including Al Jazeera, Reuters and the South China Morning Post. The research raised awareness of social and environmental risks of Chinese investments overseas among business associations, academics and CSOs in several regions. It has also been a key tool for our partners seeking accountability for human rights and environmental harms linked to Chinese investment, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“Fascinating new report from @BHRRC presenting 7 years of documenting human rights impacts connected to Chinese business conduct abroad, and company responses to those allegations.” - The People's Map of Global China
“Very useful report – it highlights the grassroots experience of communities and workers in relation to Chinese overseas investment.” - Prof. Surya Deva, Member, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (2016-2022)
“I’ve been so interested to read your paper and know that I’ll be quoting it a lot once it’s out!” - Lizzie Minhas, Independent human rights and business advisor
.@BHRRC looked at #China's investments abroad & its human rights impacts & found #Myanmar had the highest # of recorded allegations 😲👇🏽 W/ ongoing challenges, its vital companies implement robust human rights due dilligence & commitment to int. standards! https://t.co/PCArMASTBm pic.twitter.com/PHI9JWqCLs— Justice For Myanmar (@JusticeMyanmar) August 17, 2021
Tea Transparency Tracker
There is a widespread lack of transparency in the tea industry despite serious rights abuses on plantations – 13 million workers who toil on tea plantations have suffered endemic human rights abuse, from forced labour to gender-based violence. Meanwhile, the tea companies they pick for – some of the world’s largest and most profitable companies – are evading responsibility for workers, keeping their supply chains hidden. We approached 65 companies and asked them to disclose the estates and bought-leaf factories where they source their tea, and collected the information in the first ever Tea Transparency Tracker. The tracker contains information on over 3,100 estates and factories linked to 20 companies.
In an accompanying survey to the same 65 companies, we sought information about their human rights policies and standards: 25 responded. We published details and analysis of responses in our Trouble Brewing Report. The launch of the report garnered significant attention during this reporting period: 1,381 page views on 7 December alone.
Russian invasion of Ukraine: Companies' human rights due diligence efforts
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, we invited companies to respond to questions about heightened human rights due diligence they are expected to conduct in situations of armed conflict. Of the 208 companies approached by end March 2022, 65 responded (31% of those approached), with 19 companies providing full or partial responses explaining what steps they are taking to conduct heightened human rights due diligence. The numbers show many companies take action to avoid legal risk from sanctions, but far fewer take seriously their obligations under international human rights law. This ongoing disclosure initiative aims to bring greater transparency and accountability to foreign companies' commitments to human rights in the context of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
“While sanctions are important, business must do far more to uphold the rights of Ukrainian people as they face this onslaught of violence." - Ella Skybenko, Senior Regional Researcher and Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
The initiative has been welcomed and appreciated by peer human rights organisations working to enhance corporate accountability and used as a key reference by Pillar Two, BSR, and even AIM-Progress, a forum of leading Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) manufacturers and common suppliers assembled to enable and promote responsible sourcing practices and sustainable supply chains.
Company Response Mechanism
This year, we continued to leverage our Company Response Mechanism (CRM) engagement with companies to hold business accountable for abuse of human rights.
As a result of our efforts with CRMs and keeping up the pressure on companies which have investments in Myanmar, we know that at least a few companies have divested. One of those is Adani Ports, India's largest integrated ports and logistics company and a subsidiary of Adani Group, which has a $200 billion market cap. Many groups said Adani had been completely unresponsive to their efforts to engage, but the company responded to the Resource Centre before eventually taking action and announcing plans to exit the country in October 2021.
In Uganda, we helped local communities raise concerns about the Wadelai irrigation project, constructed by the Ugandan company Coil Construction Company Limited, with project funders the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Nordic Development Fund (NDF). We asked these financial institutions to publicly respond to the allegations and published their responses on our website and in our September 2021 Weekly Update. Together with the Uganda Consortium on Corporate Accountability, the community has subsequently registered a formal complaint with AfDB's Independent Recourse Mechanism, which organised meetings and consultation. The complaint is now suspended, pending a judicial proceeding against local authorities.
In one CRM process undertaken by our Natural Resources and North America researchers, we asked 29 US-listed company members of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) about financial disclosures and EITI Company Expectations. We received 22 responses. Our partners noted that this engagement ahead of the EITI board meeting resulted in deeper discussion at the meeting on company transparency and accountability, and improved EITI Company Expectations – including the introduction of the first ever consequence for non-compliance with expectations.