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Human rights, corporate wrongs

Victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by UK companies in the developing world are being left powerless when pitted against these large multinationals reveals a new LSE report published today.

The reality of rights was written by Dr Kate Macdonald for The Corporate Responsibility Coalition (CORE). It presents evidence that, even where human rights regulations are in place, victims face economic, political and social barriers when trying to assert their human rights or receive compensation for damage they suffer.

Bangladesh's ready made clothes industry, for example, supplies tens of million of pounds worth of garments to UK companies every year. The purchasing power of these retailers means they can impose very demanding requirements for low prices and fast turn-around, often at the cost of workers' rights. Over the past decade at least 30 cases of factory collapses and fires have left hundreds of workers dead and thousands injured. When workers and their representatives seek to defend their rights they suffer harassment, intimidation, assault, illegal dismissal and even imprisonment.

The report also details similar challenges being faced by workers in other sectors and countries where UK companies do business. These include cut flower workers in Kenya, Indian communities displaced by bauxite mining and communities in Nigeria affected by gas flaring -a practice by oil companies to burn off gas that is mixed with oil deposits.

Dr Kate Macdonald, who was a Fellow in Government at LSE at the time of the report's writing and now working at the University of Melbourne, said: 'Transnational companies can promote economic development and generate wealth and prosperity, thereby helping to achieve a broad range of economic and social rights in developing countries. On the other hand, there is no doubt that they can - and do - perpetrate human rights abuses affecting both workers and communities in many of the host countries in which they operate around the world.'

According to the report, barriers to righting corporate wrongs include governments' prioritising foreign investment for job creation ahead of redress for victims. Governments also lack the capacity to enforce the laws they do have.

Victims often do not know how to seek redress. A serious lack of trust in the independence of legal systems also undermines their desires to pursue claims. Furthermore the report found evidence of victims being pressured not to act and those that do want to take action are often not able to afford to do so.

The report concludes that the UK Government should strengthen the available avenues for justice when UK companies transgress internationally recognised human rights standards. CORE proposes a new UK commission on business, human rights and the environment to provide guidance to companies on what standards they must adhere to when operating abroad. This commission would also act as a forum for hearing and resolving allegations of infringements. The findings of the report will be submitted to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has just launched an enquiry on Business and Human Rights.

Hannah Ellis, Coordinator of CORE said: 'Too many UK companies are breaching human rights when they operate abroad. Our report reveals why so many companies continue to get away with it.

'The Government has no excuse not to act now. We believe a new UK Commission for Business, Human Rights & The Environment could significantly help. We hope it will be discussed urgently.'

Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said: 'The innovative approach this report puts forward is a significant contribution to ongoing debates which should be taken seriously by governments and businesses committed to responsible action at home and abroad.'

The Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition represents over 130 civil society groups including Action Aid, Amnesty International UK, Friends of the Earth, TraidCraft, War on Want and WWF (UK).
You can see the report The reality of rights here: Reality of Rights [PDF]

1 May 2009