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Opinion

How mandatory human rights due diligence could safeguard women homeworkers working within global supply chains

CIVIDEP India

How mandatory human rights due diligence could safeguard women homeworkers working within global supply chains

Mandatory human rights due diligence (mHRDD) is becoming reality in Europe, with the recent adoption of laws in France, the Netherlands and Germany, and commitments to legislation at EU level. If successful, this legislation will prompt major changes in the operation of global supply chains, affecting workers around the world.

Homeworkers are among the most precarious and vulnerable workers in the international supply chains of European companies, most commonly (but not exclusively) engaged in garment and footwear production. They are therefore bound to feel the effects of any changes brought about by mHRDD legislation. However, because they are located outside factories and formal workplaces, homeworkers are often hidden and overlooked in the development of policy and regulation.

Homeworkers Worldwide is keen to ensure the situation of homeworkers is fully considered as mHRDD legislation develops. In a recently published paper, we discuss some of the risks that weak or compromised legislation may create for them and consider how best to ensure its impact is positive.

mHRDD and homeworker visibility

The majority of homeworkers are women, working at home to earn money while taking care of children or other relatives. They are among the most insecure and lowest-paid workers in global supply chains, despite the fact many are producing for well-known and extremely profitable international brands. They are often hired by subcontractors or intermediaries, who provide the flexibility and specialist skills that first tier suppliers need if they are to meet the tight time frames and price expectations of the global brands which buy from them.

Because homeworkers are located outside the factory, they are rarely identified in factory inspections or mentioned in audit reports. Brands may be unaware of the role homeworkers play in their supply chains, and this invisibility makes addressing any human rights abuses they face more difficult.

If properly conducted, mHRDD could increase homeworkers’ visibility, make transparent their contribution to global supply chains, and improve their conditions of work. However, this will only happen if companies are required to conduct due diligence along the entire length of their supply chains, including the lower tiers, where low wages and poor conditions are common and subcontracting to homeworkers is most likely to take place.

Given recent developments, however, we are concerned legislative compromises will limit the scope of mHRDD to the upper tiers of supply chains. For example, Germany’s new law only requires companies to assess and respond to human rights risks among suppliers with whom they have direct relationships. For suppliers further down the supply chain, companies are only required to respond to specific incidents of abuse about which they have knowledge. If similar compromises are replicated in laws in other jurisdictions, mHRDD runs the serious risk of doing nothing to increase homeworker visibility and will leave their human rights issues unaddressed.

Cutting homeworkers out of supply chains

In the course of conducting human rights due diligence that follows a narrow compliance and control approach, some companies may try to remove ‘higher risk’ elements from their supply chains, such as homeworking. This would have a severe impact on homeworker livelihoods. Either they would lose their work completely or (in our experience the more likely outcome) suppliers would continue to use homeworkers but would not disclose this to their customers. This would drive homeworking underground and away from any external oversight, resulting in further deterioration in homeworkers’ working conditions and in their ability to access their rights.

Homeworkers suffer a range of human rights abuses. The combination of very low piece rates – often well below the legal minimum wage – and irregular work creates risks of child labour and forced labour, and their isolation leaves homeworkers vulnerable to harassment and abuse. Many are exposed to health and safety hazards, and almost all are excluded from work-based social security schemes. In general, homeworkers have limited or no freedom of association.

Companies that benefit from the use of homeworking in their supply chains should invest in tackling the associated human rights risks. Addressing this range of issues will be complex and require time and money to understand different contexts and develop solutions, but tools and pilot projects already exist to show how it can be done.

How do we make mHRDD work for homeworkers?

The examples above illustrate how weak mHRDD legislation, particularly if it reflects compromises with corporate stakeholders, could potentially harm the people it is seeking to benefit. Our paper explores these risks further and makes a number of recommendations to avoid these possible negative impacts and ensure legislation is meaningful and effective. These recommendations include ensuring the legislation requires companies to conduct due diligence throughout their supply chains, including sub-contractors, intermediaries and homeworkers; states clearly that disengagement from suppliers using homeworkers should be a last resort; and includes guidance (with support for smaller companies) to encourage responsible sourcing from homeworkers which recognises their contribution to global supply chains and encourages their retention and progression.

Such measures do not guarantee mHRDD will end human rights abuses involving homeworkers and other vulnerable workers in global supply chains. However, they are an essential first step towards ensuring that homeworkers can access the basic rights to which they are entitled, namely: recognition as legitimate workers in supply chains, the freedom to associate, collective bargaining, a living income, and access to social protection and employment benefits. As mHRDD legislation progresses in different countries, we must not lose sight of these goals. We must seek out and collaborate with the most vulnerable workers in global supply chains, including homeworkers, both before and after laws are passed, to ensure it safeguards their rights and livelihoods.

Lucy Brill and Shanta Bhavnani, Homeworkers Worldwide

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