Fundamental Labor Rights and International Codes of Conduct

On 22 September, the Social Justice Expertise Center and the Dutch Association on Labor Rights (VVA) brought together eighty (Dutch) labor law lawyers to discuss the relationship between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and fundamental labor rights. The (legal) frameworks that formed the basis for the discussion were, amongst others, standards of the International Labor Organization, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and initiatives between corporations and trade unions. The substantive part of the event was preceded by the election of new members of the VVA as well as the other budgetary decisions.

Professor Paul van der Heijden, chair of the Social Justice Expertise Center, gave an overview of the different sources of fundamental labor rights and their enforcement provisions. Fundamental labor rights, according to Professor Van der Heijden, can be divided into seven categories: freedom of association (including the right to strike); right to collectively bargain; prohibition of child labor; prohibition of forced labor; prohibition of discrimination; and health and safety standards. These rights can be found in CSR codes of conduct and companies’ social reports (in addition to their fiscal ones) as well as in public sources like the OECD Guidelines, ILO frameworks and for example, the UN Global Compact. Professor van der Heijden also elaborated on the new Dutch “Convenant Duurzame Kleding en Textiel” (Covenant for Sustainable Clothing and Textile); an agreement between 55 corporations in the textile industry and civil society organizations on ensuring decent working conditions in the supply chain. Professor van der Heijden’s overall message was that, despite the fact that CSR norms are traditionally “soft-law”; developments of the past few years are resulting in binding and more enforceable mechanisms.

Professor Klara Boonstra—Legal counsel, FNV Netherlands—discussed the role of the ILO in the protection of fundamental labor rights. She explained how the organization is shifting from producing protective norms to ensuring that they, especially the core ones, are properly implemented. Professor Boonstra also discussed the difficulties caused by the ever-growing supply-chain structures in relation to access to justice and effective remedies. The increasing inclusion of ILO conventions in CSR codes and trade agreements has broadened the scope of application of ILO labor standards and allows for holding non-states directly responsible for their breach where appropriate.

Lodewijk de Waal, one of the four independent members of the OECD’s National Contact Point (NCP) in the Netherlands, explained how the NCP ensures that companies respect the OECD’s Guidelines through its complaint and mediation mechanisms. He elaborated on the due diligence companies must apply in relation to their supply chain. The NCP complaint procedure is divided into three steps: Checking whether the complaint fulfils the formal requirements; providing a forum for dialogue between the parties; and the final statement. Although the OECD Guidelines are not binding, Mr De Waal explained how the Dutch government provides incentives for companies to comply with the provisions of the Guidelines. He concluded with examples of successful cases that had been dealt with by the NCP such as the Shell and G-Star cases. He did also discuss the drawbacks of the system; including for example the lack of resources available to many NCPs around the world as well as issues relating to the independence of NCPs.

In the last presentation, Joris Oldenziel discussed the genesis and workings of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord—initiated after the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster—consists of a large number of bilateral accords between individual corporations and trade unions. Furthermore, it “only” focuses on (factory) building safety and the health of workers. The restricted scope of the agreement in terms its subject matter is, according to Mr Oldenziel, its strength as it has contributed to large number of signatories (220) to the agreement as well and its success with regard to ensuring effective compliance.

Overall the presenters were positive about the developments in the enforcement of fundamental labor rights across the diverging mechanisms but all pointed out that much could still be in done in the form of raising awareness among constituents as regarding the available remedies for rights’ violations as well as reducing threshold for access to the mechanism.

For more information on this topic, see also the conference booklet Ensuring Coherence in Fundamental Labor Rights Case Law: Challenges and Opportunities, and the inaugural issue of the Journal of International Labor Rights Case Law (ILaRC).

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