Tesco, John Lewis, Primark, Asos and the Co-op are calling on the government to introduce a legal requirement for companies to carry out human rights and environmental checks on their global supply chains.
Such “failure to prevent” legislation could potentially fend off scandals such as the poor treatment of workers in Leicester factories supplying the fast fashion group Boohoo uncovered last year.
A review commissioned for the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) suggests that if such legislation was in place, Boohoo could have been found liable.
After reports of low pay and poor factory conditions in Leicester last year, Boohoo commissioned a report by Alison Levitt QC which found that the allegations were “substantially true”. It said Boohoo’s monitoring of the factories was “inadequate” because of “weak corporate governance” and called the failure to assess the risk to workers during the coronavirus pandemic “inexcusable”.
The company has since implemented a programme to improve standards in the factories it works with. However, investors and campaigners have raised concerns about the pace of change.
Timothy Otty QC, who was commissioned by the BHRRC, said Levitt’s findings indicated that historically Boohoo did not have in place reasonable procedures to prevent poor working conditions and low pay in its suppliers’ factories and so potentially would have been liable under the proposed “failure to prevent” law.
He said the company was “a compelling example of a situation in which such legislation might have made a difference, either by encouraging appropriate action to be taken earlier or by providing a means of redress for those affected by the allegations found to be substantially true”.
Thulsi Narayanasamy, the head of labour rights at the BHRRC, said: “Voluntary commitments to ensure human rights are respected by businesses have failed. It speaks volumes that leading businesses and investors themselves are uniting to call for a level playing field and a clear regulatory environment to ensure that the rights of the most vulnerable are respected.
“We want to see this requirement backed up by strong liability provisions that will hold companies legally accountable if they fail to prevent abuses. As workers face unprecedented rights abuses with no recourse, the UK simply can’t afford to waste more time, it’s time to bridge the regulatory gap.”
The call for legislation came in a letter to the government signed by 36 organisations including the Cadbury owner Mondelez, Mars, Twinings, Unilever and Microsoft and the investors Aviva, Jupiter and the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum.
The signatories said changing the law would establish the UK as “a leader in setting standards for renewed and sustainable prosperity worldwide” as it recovers from the Covid crisis.
They argue the pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of global supply chains and the pressure this puts on communities around the world.
The letter notes “a real risk that recent progress will be reversed” with, for example 8.4 million more children involved in labour worldwide in the last four years – taking the total to 160 million, according to the International Labour Organization and Unicef’s Child Labour Global Estimates 2020.
“Mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence is key to ensure that efforts by companies that respect people and the planet, both during and after the Covid-19 recovery, are not undercut by the lack of a uniform standard of conduct,” the letter says.
The call for legislation is in line with the recommendations of a 2017 report from the UK parliament’s joint committee on human rights.
Simon Platts, the responsible sourcing director at Asos, said: “Such legislation has the power to protect workers and deliver positive benefits for people around the world by driving up standards and making companies legally responsible for identifying and stamping out human rights and environmental risks, wherever they occur.”
Aisha Aswani, the ethical trading manager of the Co-op, said: “Effective and workable legislation is critical to help prevent human rights abuse and environmental harm and it’s vital these issues remain high on the UK agenda so positive moves forward can be made.”
Boohoo has appointed the retired judge Sir Brian Leveson to oversee the revamp of its supply chain. In one report, Leveson said Boohoo was “demonstrating a degree of due diligence which may well go beyond that which is undertaken by other retailers or in other industries”.
The company said it “does not tolerate any instances of worker exploitation and we support any appropriate measures that will help reduce this risk”.