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Opinion

Businesses across Europe and central Asia are still violating workers' rights

First appeared in The Guardian

People around the world will mark workers' struggles for improved working conditions today on International Workers' Day. Many of those living and working in Europe enjoy the achievements of this movement. Yet, others in the region continue to face exploitation, discrimination, injuries and even death. These should be a major concern in this month's European Parliament elections.

Forced labour is one of the most egregious abuses spanning Europe and central Asia. Recent cases in the UK include Lithuanian migrants working on a chicken farm allegedly under threats of violence and intimidation and elderly Polish men recruited in a meat-packaging factory subjected to beatings, long working hours and withholding of wages. In Uzbekistan, a state-sponsored forced labour system in cotton harvests continues despite calls to eradicate the practice.

Migrants and minorities are being routinely exploited and discriminated against. Roma people face crippling work-related discrimination in eastern Europe, while religious and ethnic minorities are subjected to similar abuses in countries including France and the UK.

A Human Rights Watch report documented alleged abuses against migrant workers involved in construction for the Sochi Olympics in Russia this February, including failure to pay wages, withholding of identity documents, and excessive working hours. Five out of 11 companies responded to the report claiming that they were not aware of abuses. In an attempt to prevent further exploitation of Russian and migrant workers in preparation for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the International Trade Union Confederation and its Russian affiliates took on this struggle by raising concerns about lack of worker protections in new laws passed in relation to hosting the competition.

Business also now plays a key role in citizen's privacy and freedom of expression. Internet and communications technology firms' involvement in mass surveillance by governments has raised concerns about abuse of privacy rights. Civil society organisations in Belgium, France and Germany have filed judicial complaints for violation of privacy in relation to the US Prism surveillance programme. Moreover, an international coalition of 60 groups in an open letter voiced concern that the UK's approach to surveillance could have "dangerous consequences for the right of freedom of expression and media freedom in the UK and beyond."

European governments must take some of the blame for this continued human rights abuse. The scale of complacency is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that only three governments, the UK, Netherlands and Denmark, have delivered on the promise of a National Action Plan for the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, almost three years after they were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council. Sadly, Russia, one of the sponsors in the UN Human Rights Council resolution endorsing the Guiding Principles, appears to have taken few steps to implement the Principles. The inertia of governments is matched by most European companies. BP, H&M, Kuoni, Nestlé and Unilever are among the few in Europe who have taken concrete implementation steps and have made them publicly available.

The European Parliament has recently voted for non-financial reporting requirements for companies, which has been lauded as a significant achievement by many, although critics say the proposal does not go far enough. The EU has a number of proposals in front of it that could help advance protection against business-related human rights abuses including on data protection and conflict minerals. The challenge is to ensure that they are strong enough to drive change.

Europe is not immune to business-related human rights abuses, and does not escape scrutiny by civil society. European governments' and companies' initiatives have influence around the world. They are in a unique position to take a leading role to eliminate business-related human rights abuses. Building on the achievements of the workers' rights movement, we need renewed efforts across Europe. For voters, supporting candidates who are actively committed to human rights in the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections is a good place to start.