Comment piece by Fairtrade on EU proposed human rights legislation

Why the UK should take note of proposed EU law to clamp down on human rights abuses in supply chains


By Alice Lucas, Policy and Advocacy Manager

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, factory workers in Leicester supplying well-known brands such as PrettyLittleThing and Boohoo, were found to have suffered a range of severe rights abuses including modern slavery, exploitation and wages reportedly as low as £3.50 per hour, well below the minimum wage. There was also reported to be a complete lack of PPE and social distancing to keep workers safe during local outbreaks and lockdowns. Media and political condemnation put increasing pressure on the brands to explain why they were allowing such practices in the first place.   But this case is unfortunately nothing new. Human and environmental rights abuses have long blighted business supply chains. Amnesty International, for example, has been documenting human and environmental abuses concerning Shell in the Niger Delta for over a decade. But the public is clear they want an end to harmful trade and two thirds (67%) of people say they would not buy a product if they knew it was linked to human rights abuses or exploitative trading practices.

To make companies more accountable, the EU has recently set out its plan to introduce a ground-breaking piece of legislation and we want policymakers in the UK to take note. The ‘Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence’ will affect many businesses operating in the UK and could be a game changer for improving the human and environmental rights of people in millions of communities. However, it is vital that law makers listen to the farmers and workers themselves, who will be most impacted by this law. Today millions of people in low-income countries still face serious human rights violations working in multinational supply chains, according to the UN 160 million children are engaged in child labour, and low incomes and wages trap farmers and workers in a cycle of poverty and hardship. Those who protest risk oppression, aggression and in many cases murder, in 2021 alone 358 Human and Environmental Rights Defenders lost their lives. The cost-of-living crisis is being felt worldwide and it is increasing people’s vulnerability to extreme poverty. Without living wages and incomes, people often cannot put food on the table, send their children to school nor afford medicine or the travel needed to access healthcare when they are sick. 

We know that many human rights violations, including child labour, are fuelled by poverty. This is why Fairtrade producers are calling for EU legislation to act to increase wages and incomes globally as indispensable first steps in promoting human rights and environmental protection. This would need to see businesses improve trading and purchasing practices, which many are indeed doing, for example through Fairtrade sourcing. Ultimately, more power needs to shift to producers and businesses need to commit to fair pricing practices and longer-term contracts to enable greater resilience amongst farming communities. 

Fairtrade has published an open letter with its key recommendations for the EU legislation, signed by over 270 producer organisations and 40 businesses, calling for their views to be put at the heart of EU negotiations on Due Diligence legislation. They say “Dialogue with the people impacted by business is a fundamental principle in human rights and environmental due diligence. We, as rights holders, want our voices heard”. If policymakers do not listen and fail to understand the reality for farming communities in low-income countries, the proposed legislation is unlikely to achieve its aims. 

 To address complex problems like child labour and discrimination against women, businesses need to invest in supply chains, and share the cost of compliance, not just expect producers to do all the work without extra resources. This also means that, if a violation is found in their supply chain, they address them together, rather than abandoning sourcing or ‘cut and run’. Fairtrade farmers and workers are calling on businesses to work with them in addressing and remediating abuses.

Many well-known brands operate both in the UK and in EU countries, and so are likely to fall under the new law. This means that British businesses will now need to comply with both EU law and the UK’s existing, but narrowly focused, laws relating only to modern slavery and deforestation. 

And with growing public demand for more ethically and sustainably produced products, including Fairtrade, it is time for the UK to do more and expand Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence legislation, such as that proposed by the Corporate Justice Coalition, of which Fairtrade is a partner. In partnership with producers, the UK could be a world leader in responsible business, protect people working across our global supply chains, and shore up UK food security for generations to come.