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Looking back: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in 2021

As we enter the new year, this month-by-month review of 2021 celebrates some of the key impacts and outcomes of our global movement to put human rights at the heart of business, and the Resource Centre’s own collaborative role in achieving them.

With presence worldwide, and a website in ten languages, we have amplified partner voices, influenced decision-makers and driven improved corporate accountability – seeking better outcomes for the most vulnerable workers and communities. We have done this within the context of advocating for a just response to the pandemic, a just transition to avoid climate breakdown, and protection of human rights defenders, especially amid the current digital revolution.

The Resource Centre has tracked human rights allegations in key sectors including renewable energy, apparel, tea and surveillance technology. We directly approached companies, calling for practical efforts to end human rights abuse - and saw leaders take positive action, including in serious rights-threatening situations like junta-controlled Myanmar. We also worked with our diverse movement to advocate for transformative change in business behaviour: for instance, we helped bring new voices to promote regulations which could strengthen human rights in business including the EC Sustainable Corporate Governance initiative and movements to promote mandatory human rights due diligence in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Please join us as we reflect on key moments during 2021 in the joint movement to improve corporate respect for human rights.

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre

“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

Highlights

Towards a Just Recovery

Building a shared vision for a radically different course towards a just recovery.

Modern Slavery Registry

After five years collecting 16,300 modern slavery statements, we closed the Modern Slavery Registry as the UK Government prepared to launch its own database.

First Glory garment factory

We engaged with J. Crew over lay-offs of 300 workers and reports of union-busting from labour group Partido Manggagawa at supplier factory First Glory.

We started the year with a renewed focus on building a just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic which prioritises the rights of workers in global supply chains. Our engagement with J.Crew over reports of union-busting and mass layoffs at Philippines supplier factory First Glory led the brand to push for union elections at the factory. As protests continued, we worked with local labour group Partido Manggagawa to amplify workers' demands and encourage J.Crew to use its leverage to call for the reinstatement of the 300 dismissed workers, including all union officers.

We called on companies to catch up following nascent steps by some governments and investors to address human rights risks in supply chains, including the introduction of import bans on products linked to forced labour and movements towards mandatory human rights due diligence. The UK Government launched a central public registry of companies' modern slavery statements, leading us to close our Modern Slavery Registry after collecting more than 16,300 statements over five years. Our final analysis showed the UK Modern Slavery Act had not driven significant improvement in corporate practices to eliminate modern slavery, and we continue to advocate for more effective measures to drive corporate accountability in supply chains.

Highlights

Transition Minerals Tracker: 2021 update

For our tracker update, we researched the human rights policies and practices of 102 companies which hold a majority market share in one of the six key commodities vital to the clean energy transition. Many of these companies are beset with human rights allegations: 276 have been identified in the last 10 years.

Workers at risk: Labour rights in Jordan during COVID-19

Between April and December 2020, we tracked the impact of the pandemic on workers in Jordan, many of whom already find themselves in vulnerable circumstances due to their migrant status, systemic labour exploitation and irresponsible conduct by employers.

Lack of investor voting transparency barrier to achieving ESG policies

In July 2020, more than 120 worker and advocacy groups called on Tyson Foods' top 10 investors to urge the company to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its workers. Our KnowTheChain lead Felicitas Weber followed up on the eve of Tyson's AGM to highlight the need for improved shareholder voting transparency.

Myanmar's military launched a coup on 1 February, bringing the country back under military rule and beginning a deadly crackdown on protests. Our team responded rapidly to the coup, consulting diverse allies and partners to define our ‘value-add’ to their own efforts. We reached out to military-linked companies for responses to allegations made against them, are monitoring the opposition of local and international business groups to the draft cyber-crime bill and, as of early May, have reached out to 136 companies and business chambers investing in Myanmar because of their potential leverage to push for the protection of human rights and stability in the country.

  • 26 companies shared their statements and commitments.
  • We facilitated a discussion between business representatives and civil society leaders on immediate steps businesses should take to ensure respect for human rights.
  • We amplified concerns raised by partners over human rights allegations linked to global companies.
  • We are using responses to build a tracker of human rights due diligence plans of those companies which decide to remain in Myanmar, and our call on brands to support their workers was featured in the Financial Times. Companies can learn best practice from each other and be held to account when things go wrong.
Thank you so much for sharing this super important tool! Congratulations on the update of the [Transition Minerals] Tracker. I have circulated this to over 130 UNEP colleagues who may find it useful in their extractives work.
Contact at UN Environment Programme

Highlights

Wage theft and pandemic profits

We examined allegations of wage theft affecting over 9,843 garment workers and their families at eight factories supplying 16 fashion brands including H&M, Nike and Levi’s.

All at sea: Modern slavery in Pacific supply chains of canned tuna

For the second time, we asked 35 tuna companies how they are addressing modern slavery and labour rights risks in their supply chains. We found glacial progress on actions which really matter to workers trapped in modern slavery.

Human Rights Defenders in the line of fire in 2020

We tracked 604 attacks against human rights defenders focused on business-related activities in 2020. Our data and case studies reveal increased attacks and we called for increased legal protection for those defending human rights.

Our team in Latin America worked throughout the opening months of the year to produce resources and facilitate dialogue on the topic of human rights due diligence under the Responsible Business Conduct in Latin America and the Caribbean project (CERALC), with the support of the European Union in collaboration with the OECD and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Activities included:

  • Mexico: two workshops and a roundtable discussion on the topic of due diligence and a report on how compliance mechanisms could be adapted to strengthen corporate respect for human rights, drawing on lessons from anti-corruption processes;
  • Colombia: a regional forum and report on due diligence and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights in Colombia, exploring the role of business in conflict and post-conflict situations;
  • Brazil: a major seminar bringing together business, civil society and government actors to discuss the movement towards due diligence in Brazil, with a focus on labour conditions in supply chains.

We continue working to build tools and resources towards mandatory human rights due diligence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Our Mandatory Due Diligence pages in Spanish and Portuguese bring together the latest updates.

The [HRDs] dataset and the company response mechanism have changed the landscape for land and environmental rights defenders putting the issue firmly on the agenda and giving HRDs’ work a massive source of legitimacy.
Civil society respondent to Human Rights Defenders and Civic Freedoms learning exercise

Highlights

A year of COVID-19 in the Gulf

Analysis of data from our Gulf Allegations Tracker identified at least 47,991 migrant workers in Gulf states were impacted by labour abuse since COVID-19 reached the region over a year ago, a figure which is just the tip of the iceberg.

Responsible recruitment of migrant workers

KnowTheChain analysis found of 180 companies with high-risk supply chains, 87% failed to show that supply chain workers are reimbursed for recruitment fees or do not have to pay such fees.

Corporate accountability in Kazakhstan: 7 HRDs speak out

A collection of interviews with activists, journalists and human rights defenders in which they share their strategies, victories and recommendations for protecting civic freedoms and human rights.

In Cambodia, hearings began against environmental activists who were arrested after they organised a march to the Prime Minister’s house in protest against plans to fill Phnom Penh’s largest lake, Boeing Tamok, to make way for development. The trio were charged with direct incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security.

Through our database of attacks against Human Rights Defenders, our team was able to increase awareness about the case, as well as the wider pressing issue of judicial harassment of land, environmental and labour rights defenders in Cambodia. Six of these environmental defenders were released on bail following widespread criticism from civil society and the international community.

Prominent Cambodian union leader Rong Chhun was also released this year along with two other labour activists after their arrests in July 2020. Our database has recorded the arrests of multiple other Cambodian activists protesting against Chhun's imprisonment.

I’ve been following your organisation’s work for some time, and see it as a critical resource in my work. Our union is leading more human rights shareholder engagement…”
Investment advisor for trade union pension fund
BHRRC's Thulsi Narayanasamy joins civil society, trade unions and workers calling for a living wage for workers in garment supply chains in EcoAgeTV's film Fashionscapes: A Living Wage

Highlights

Technology company dashboards

We collected data and information on human rights policy and performance for 40 technology companies. The dedicated company pages also include financial information, lawsuits over alleged rights violations, benchmark rankings and indicators on transparency and expression.

KnowTheChain Apparel & Footwear Benchmark

Our KnowTheChain findings revealed apparel and footwear companies have failed to safeguard supply chain workers, with forced labor allegations identified in the supply chains of 54% of benchmarked companies.

Joint letter concerning migrant rights activist Malcolm Bidali

Together with MigrantRights.org, FairSquare, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, we issued a joint letter to the Qatari authorities, urging them to investigate Malcolm’s disappearance as a matter of urgency.

Workers and citizens took to the streets in Colombia in their third wave of mass protests since 2019, with demonstrators voicing their grievances over a proposal that would have increased taxation to middle and poor families as well as economic inequality, attacks on social leaders and the government’s refusal to provide strong political support for the historic 2016 Peace Accords.

The Resource Centre’s Executive Director, Phil Bloomer, issued a public statement expressing deep concern over the excessive use of force against the protestors and called on the Colombian Government, companies and businesses to directly acknowledge that the crisis cannot be transformed without the right to peaceful assembly and protest, condemning all forms of violence, and ensuring a national conversation to address the underlying claims and causes of the current social crisis.

The dashboards are incredibly helpful. It is so important to have this level of transparency for the tech industry. It gives those us doing work in this area the opportunity to move the ball forward, and we plan to use them frequently.
Hana Ivanhoe, Just Peace Labs

KnowTheChain Apparel & Footwear Benchmark: Worker-centric scores

KnowTheChain’s 2021 benchmark found that, despite a rich body of evidence detailing cases in which audits and certifications have failed to detect labor rights abuses, apparel companies focus heavily on policies and monitoring, yet they fall short when it comes to focusing on worker-centric processes and solutions.

Highlights

Digging in the shadows: Eastern Europe and Central Asia's opaque extractives industry

An analysis of the human rights policies and performance of 30 extractives companies in Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan.

Database and briefing on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs)

We produced the first global database and analysis of its kind, uncovering the extent of corporate abuse against activists, leading to a range of influential stakeholders publicly condemning the use of SLAPPs.

‘This Way Up’ Podcast Series

In the first podcast from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, we unpack the latest issues related to business and human rights with expert voices.

One year on from Boohoo’s labour abuse scandal, the fast fashion giant’s supply chain practices were once again cast into the spotlight.

On the eve of Boohoo’s AGM, we teamed up with Labour Behind The Label and Share Action to release a joint statement expressing concern about Boohoo’s efforts to improve poor labour practices in its supply chain. Working with media contacts, we were able to highlight the lack of change through prominent coverage on the day of their AGM, with the Guardian, Evening Standard, Daily Mail and multiple retail and investor publications reporting concerns around Boohoo’s commercial purchasing practices.

The June edition of our Africa Quarterly Update focused on attacks against human rights defenders and activists who work on business-related activities across Africa. Natural Justice's Claire Martens and Eva Maria Okoth explained why expanded support and specialised legal knowledge is important for African environmental defenders in their guest blog.

Highlights

Checked Out: Migrant worker abuse in Qatar's World Cup luxury hotels

Our second report on the sector included first-hand testimony from workers, revealing a shocking contrast between hotels’ public policy commitments and their practical application.

A Crucial Gap: Limits to official data on attacks against defenders

In a joint briefing with the ALLIED Data Working Group, we found fewer than 2% of countries indicated attacks on human rights defenders within their borders since 2015, and most were not fulfilling their duty to collect this data.

Wind project splinters Mexico communities

Bloomberg investigative report into the impact renewable energy companies are having on local communities in Latin America, featuring our research on human rights allegations related to these firms.

July saw continued fallout from the coup d'état in Myanmar, with 474 civil society organisations submitting a complaint to the OECD Norwegian National Contact Point (NCP) concerning Telenor's exit from operations in the country. Having been initially praised for speaking out against the atrocities, the sale of the company’s Myanmar business to M1 Group has since been sited as an example of how divestment is not a silver bullet, but rather fraught with risk for human rights.

Pressure also ramped up on business activity in Qatar ahead of the FIFA World Cup scheduled for 2022. Checked Out – our report on luxury hotels in the country – sought disclosure from companies representing over 100 global brands and highlighted testimony from migrant workers on the ground.

We do not get our salary paid in time. I haven’t gotten my salary since the past 3 months. They even pay salaries differently to us. We are only paid 25% of what Qataris get paid for the same job.” - Restaurant worker from Nepal at non-responding brand

The report coincided with the publication of 35 hotel company dashboards, which collate data on company human rights performance and encourage the publication of new policies.

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 labour 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.
Mariam Bhacker, Humanity United
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Highlights

"Going Out" Responsibly: The human rights impact of China's global investments

An analysis of data collected by Resource Centre between 2013 (the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative) and 2020 found more than 600 allegations of human rights abuse linked to Chinese business conduct abroad.

Renewable energy (in)justice in Latin America

We examined allegations of abuse linked to renewable energy projects in Latin America and found communities in the region bear a disproportionate burden with regard to the global transition towards renewable energy sources.

Japan Monthly Newsletter: Responsible supply chains and overseas investment

In response to increased interest in our Japan Monthly Newsletter, we launched monthly briefings to facilitate dialogue on key business and human rights issues in the country and build a local network of business, media and civil society stakeholders.

Concerns were raised in Australia as the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill was passed by Australia's Parliament. The Bill contains unprecedented powers for officials to monitor online activity, take over accounts and disrupt data.

Our briefing on China’s global investment drive identified several trends from seven years of documentation, including:

  • Higher rates of alleged abuse in countries with weak governance and dominant Chinese investment, such as Myanmar, Peru, Ecuador and Laos;
  • Extractive and construction sectors account for the majority of allegations;
  • Companies listed on stock exchanges and state-owned entities are more likely to engage with requests for comment than privately-owned ventures.

Meanwhile in Brazil, we partnered with Conectas Human Rights, Christliche Initiative Romero (CIR), and Repórter Brasil to deliver three seminars discussing international laws on due diligence and how Brazilian society stands to benefit.

Highlights

Social audit liability: Hard law strategies to redress weak social assurances

This year’s Corporate Legal Accountability briefing explored opportunities and challenges for holding social audit firms legally accountable for human rights harm.

In memory of Prof. John Ruggie

The business and human rights movement paid homage to the much-revered author of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Standards on climate change, environment and human rights

Our Latin America team released a comprehensive report documenting regulations and standards in the region on climate change, environment and human rights.

September marked the release of our Corporate Legal Accountability team’s annual briefing. This year's briefing focused on the social audit industry, which has long been accused of false or negligent claims which hide the truth of abuse against workers. Since the launch of the report developments in the space include a lawsuit against Hershey & Rainforest Alliance filed by Corporate Accountability Lab and an open letter from Clean Clothes Campaign to EU policymakers on social audit failures.

Our work to enable and support corporate legal accountability made further advances in Latin America this year with the launch of a regional strategic litigation network.

Elsewhere, we helped local communities in Uganda to raise their concerns about the Wadelai Irrigation Project, constructed by the Ugandan company Coil Limited. We invited the financial institutions funding the project to publicly respond to allegations that community members were shot at for their opposition to the project. See what they had to say.

Human rights impact assessments: Examples and case studies

Find and learn from examples of HRIA carried out in different sectors and locations worldwide. Read more about due diligence examples and case studies, including HRIA, here.

Our collaboration with BHRRC on social auditing this year enabled us to explore new strategies for social auditor liability. As a result, we are now testing one of these strategies in a case we filed against Hershey and Rainforest Alliance for misleading consumers about child labor.
Corporate Accountability Lab

Highlights

Hearing the human

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 idea has been publicly endorsed by the vice president of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala, the UN Working Group and the UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs, as well as by almost 50 companies and investors.

Beyond social auditing

To realise its potential, the EU's Sustainable Corporate Governance Initiative needs to provoke best efforts to assess risks and address them, rather than encouraging a a mechanical tick-box exercise which has characterised too many companies’ approaches to their duty of care to workers and communities. Drawing on our research and diverse perspectives on the topic of social audits, we provided policymakers and legislators with starting points for mandating effective due diligence.

Dubai Expo 2020

To mark the start of the Dubai EXPO, a six-month international fair which expects to welcome 25 million visitors, we used our Gulf allegations data to highlight the severe and frequent labour abuse migrant workers face in the UAE. The almost 8 million workers in the country remain at risk of severe labour rights abuse due to the exploitative Kafala system, with poor enforcement of regulation and workers' freedom to change employer curtailed.

In October the Israeli government outlawed six leading Palestinian civil society organisations, designating them ‘terrorist organisations’ in an effort to silence and harass them. The targeted organisations include Al-Haq, a close partner of the Resource Centre and recipient of the 2019 Business & Human Rights Award.

To condemn this judicial harassment, draw international attention and express our solidarity, the Resource Centre issued a statement in solidarity with Palestinian organisations deemed 'terrorist,' co-signed a joint statement alongside almost 250 CSOs from around the world. We continue to cover the latest developments in this story. Since then, many more organisations, institutions and HRDs have expressed their support for the six, continuously pressuring the Israeli government to rescind the designation.

The 2021 Mary Robinson Online Speaker Series explored the nature of exploitation faced by gig economy workers and the strategies employed to challenge these abuses.

Highlights

Renewable Energy Benchmark

Our second global benchmark examined the human rights policies of 15 of the largest wind and solar companies. The average company score was just 28%, indicating urgent need for improvement within sector if abuse of communities & workers are to be avoided.

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Parallel Portal

Shining a light on the reality for workers behind the flashy football news and glossy promotional façade in official materials as Qatar prepares for the World Cup. The Portal draws together data and detail on human rights issues connected with World Cup-related companies, projects and sponsors.

Corporate rights or human rights?

We analysed how trade and investment agreements could threaten human rights due diligence laws.

With just one year until the FIFA World Cup 2022 kicks off in Qatar, we launched our Parallel Portal to bring together data on allegations associated with Qatar and the World Cup, improve transparency and map the complex business relationships involved in the infrastructure, stadiums, hotels and leisure facilities that will be enjoyed by all who attend the tournament in November and December 2022.

The World Cup sells itself on the premise of bringing people and cultures together. But behind sanitised images celebrating global diversity, serious human rights concerns remain, particularly in relation to the treatment of the two million migrant workers who live and work in Qatar under the effective control of their employer. The Parallel Portal and allegations tracker will be continuously updated with new information over the next year.

BHRRC's Jessie Cato speaks to NPR's Here and Now about human rights in the renewable energy sector:

Highlights

Tea Transparency Tracker

We asked 65 tea companies to disclose their supply chain information and respond to questions on their due diligence processes. As a result, 3,177 facilities are now listed on the world’s first Tea Transparency Tracker, where brands and retailers are linked directly to the factories and estates they source from.

Brazil's football team faces calls for human rights due diligence

Brazil's Folha de São Paulo newspaper covers the Resource Centre's work on labour rights concerns at the national football team's chosen hotel for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

Joint statement on delay to the EC’s Sustainable Corporate Governance initiative

We called on President Ursula Von der Leyen and the EC to ensure the proposal sets an ambitious standard of care and requires the widest possible range of businesses to reach it, while improving access to justice and remedy for those affected by corporate abuse.

Thirteen million workers who toil on tea plantations have suffered from endemic human rights abuses while the tea companies they pick for - some of the world’s largest and most profitable companies - have evaded responsibility for their supply chain workers and kept their supply chains hidden. Without supply chain transparency, workers don’t know where the tea they pick goes and remediation for abuses from forced labour to gender-based violence stop at the estate instead of going up the chain to where most of the value lies.

Informed by our experience working on labour rights in garment supply chains and initiatives like Open Apparel Registry and Fashion Revolution in the apparel industry, we sought to address this gap by approaching 65 companies with a request for them to disclose the estates and bought-leaf factories from which they source their tea, to be held centrally in the first Tea Transparency Tracker. There are over 3,100 estates and factories linked to 20 companies within the Tracker, and all disclosed supplier data is also available under a Creative Commons licence via WikiRate. We also conducted a survey of the same 65 companies, asking them about their human rights policies and standards.