Consider the details

November 22, 2007

The private sector should consider the underlying reasons for human rights abuses in its supply chain and address the issue from the bottom up.

The Nike and Gap labour scandals exploded onto the news in the mid-90s and now, over 10 years later, Gap’s association with human rights abuses is still making headlines (see below). Despite investing much in trying to ensure that its supply chains are free from controversy, Gap – and the retail sector in general – seems unable to find a permanent solution to this problem. Although Gap thought its supply chain was free of child labour, what the auditors see and what goes on is not always the same thing. Until the West is willing to pay higher prices for the labour standards it demands, it is simply not viable for developing country suppliers to meet these standards.

In other sectors similar issues are also causing controversy. Once long neglected, the rights of indigenous peoples are slowly creeping onto the agenda with sectors such as agriculture and forestry attracting criticism. Reports such as Indigenous Rights, Indigenous Wrongs (see below) and the increased representation and mobility of indigenous peoples are likely to ensure that this issue is here to stay.

But the issue of human rights is not limited to certain countries and certain sectors. Yahoo recently found itself in hot water by passing information about its users to the Chinese government, UBS has come under fire for underwriting the IPO of PetroChina while Total remains top of NGO hit-list’s for it’s involvement in Burma.

Even in the UK, supermarkets have found been accused of supplying fruit and vegetables picked and harvested by illegal and/or poorly paid and ill-treated immigrants. Companies by themselves cannot solve the problem of human rights abuses, but they would do well to start looking underneath the issue if they are to help address the difficulties.

Rolls-Royce and Burma

The Burma Campaign UK reported on October 11 that Rolls-Royce is “ceasing all business in Burma”. The campaign group stated that it had received a faxed statement from Rolls-Royce saying it had decided to cease all operations and involvement in the country. Rolls-Royce has further stated, on its website, that it is returning two engines to MyanmarAirlines, which were in the UK for repair work and that it is terminating “the contract for future repair work”. It goes further to say that it has commitments to a Singapore-based operator that leases an aircraft to a Burmese airline and that “action is in hand to terminate this contract also and it is anticipated that this involvement will be terminated by early November 2007”. This will mark the end of Rolls-Royce’s involvement in the state and the company “will not be seeking any further business”.

Rolls-Royce had featured on The Burma Campaign UK’s Dirty List of companies that are involved either directly or indirectly in funding the regime. The campaign group has called for other companies including Total, Chevron, Daewoo and Orient Express to follow suit.

Contact The Burma Campaign UK 020 7324 4710; Rolls-Royce 020 7222 9020

Child labour allegations

Clothes destined for GapKids stores in the UK and US were allegedly being made by children in India according to an investigation by The Observer that was published on October 28. The newspaper filmed children working in a textile factory in Delhi and interviewed them alleging that some are as young at 10 and have been sold to the factory owner by their families. In a statement on its website, Gap describes itself as “deeply concerned and upset by this allegation” and that it “strictly prohibits” the use of the child labour and that “as soon as we were alerted to this situation, we stopped the work order and prevented the product from being sold in stores”. The clothes retailer has also called a meeting with its suppliers in the region to “reinforce our policies”. It also emphasised that, since last year, it has ceased working with 23 suppliers due to code violations. The company has a Code of Vendor Conduct, which is based on international labour standards. It also employs 90 people worldwide to ensure that factories contracted to Gap comply with the code.

Contact The Observer; Gap 001 650 952 4400

Indigenous rights and risk

Oil, gas and mining companies do the most to address the rights of indigenous people whereas forestry and agricultural businesses are lagging behind according to a new report from EIRIS and the Centre for Australian Ethical Research, which was published in October. Indigenous rights, indigenous wrongs looks at the policies of seven large businesses operating in areas where the rights of indigenous peoples is a potential business risk. It also found that reporting and assessment of the issue was poor. The report emphasised that a “strong commitment” and “effective engagement processes” will benefit companies operating in regions where access to land and resources is difficult. The companies included in the research were Anglo-Eastern Plantations, Barrick Gold, BHP Billiton, Suncor Energy, Total, Weyerhaeuser and Woodside Petroleum.

Contact EIRIS 020 7840 5700; CAER 0061 262 011 996

Workplace HIV programmes save lives and money

Workplace initiatives that tackle HIV can save lives and are also cost effective according to a new report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Cost Benefit Analysis of HIV Workplace Programmes in Zambia also found that the programmes encourage the development of skills and knowledge as well as improve the health and security of the affected communities in the southern African country. In particular, the study makes reference to the huge dependence that these sectors have on migrant workers and describes the view that “a plentiful and cheap supply of labour meant that there was no need for HIV programming for temporary workers” as “short-sighted”.

The analysis looked at the costs of running the initiatives (healthcare, peer education, counselling and testing as well as staff time spent on the programme) against the costs of HIV/Aids to the company (employee turnover, training new staff, loss of productivity, absenteeism and funeral costs).

The seven biggest companies in Zambia were included in the research – four in the mining sector and three in the agricultural sector – and all of the companies are members of the Global Development Alliance. The research was funded by the Comprehensive HIV/Aids Management Programme (CHAMP), the Zambian Aids Council and USAID as well as IOM.

Contact IOM 0041 22 717 9111