Australia is a modern society with a unique and multifaceted approach to human rights protection. We have historically been a good international citizen, engaging closely with major global human rights treaties and viewed worldwide as a just and fair society with a strong legal system governing labour rights.
Australian businesses, by nature, are expected to operate as exemplar organisations with strong and effective leadership, reflecting Australia’s culture, values and identity. The rhetoric of the individual right to ‘a fair go’ is translated by Australian business into ‘doing the right thing’. Diversity and equal opportunity, non- discrimination, worker health and safety programs, Indigenous reconciliation and fair wages are all markers of organisations being employers of choice, and ‘doing the right thing’.
The collapse of a Bangladesh factory in April 2013, killing more than 1,100 garment workers and injuring many more, made human rights in global supply chains tangible for Australian businesses and consumers. This event thrust business practices, worker safety and other labour rights in factories all across the world, into the spotlight. It galvanised the desire of many businesses to do the right thing beyond their direct operations. It prompted greater scrutiny of supply chain arrangements, both internationally and domestically, broader analysis of what human rights means to, and how it can be addressed by, business.
As key manufacturers and purchasers of labour, materials and products, the Australian business community finds it cannot turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in its supply chains, regardless of whether businesses’ contributions are direct or indirect through supplier partners. Scrutiny of human rights issues in supply chains has traditionally focused on labour rights abuses such as child labour, slavery, trafficking, unfair wages or unacceptably poor working conditions. However, it is important to recognise that other human rights issues including displacement and resettlement, the rights of Indigenous peoples and the right to safety and security of the person can also arise in relation to the supply chain.
In an environment of heightened transparency through digital media, civil society and consumer activism Australian businesses not only increasingly recognise their responsibility to do the right thing, but also the risk of not doing the right thing. Recent news reports exposing violation of labour rights in Australia’s 7-Eleven retail chain and the fresh food supply chain practices cemented this understanding, highlighting that this is not just an offshore issue.
This report provides a unique insight into the current drivers, practices, and challenges of Australian businesses in managing human rights in their supply chains. Importantly, the report provides practical guidance to assist business with identifying and addressing human rights risks in their supply chains.
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require companies to address ‘human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts’. The UN Guiding Principles are now a global standard for preventing and addressing adverse human rights impacts related to business, supported and implemented by a growing number of Australian companies, the Australian Government and civil society. They are incorporated into several leading corporate sustainability initiatives such as the UN Global Compact, to which there are currently over 120 Australian signatories.
In a landmark collaboration, the Australian Human Rights Commission partnered with two leaders in the business and human rights field to produce this report: the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility and the Global Compact Network Australia.
Our research sought to map how Australian businesses currently deal with human rights issues in their supply chains.
Even as business leaders face hurdles dealing with vast, complex global supply chains, our findings point to opportunities for increasing visibility and power to influence human rights outcomes through stronger relationships and partnerships.
Our research finds that:
1. Addressing human rights issues has become more important within Australian businesses’ sustainability agendas and businesses are increasingly linking human rights issues to their supply chains.
2. Businesses are committed to human rights because it is the right thing to do. They are also trying to align with employee values and expectations and build brand and reputation as a responsible business.
3. Businesses focus their human rights efforts where they have direct operational control. Consequently, they place high importance on traditional workplace issues such health and safety, non-discrimination, and diversity and inclusion.
4. While they have the aspiration and commitment to address human rights impacts in their supply chains, many businesses lack clear strategies and processes to trace, monitor and address such risks.
5. Limited visibility into suppliers’ practices and limited staff capacity and authority to address human rights impacts remain the most salient barriers for Australian businesses.
We are encouraged and optimistic by current examples of a number of leading Australian businesses taking ownership of their supply chains and the human rights issues within them, as well as the vast scope for improvement articulated by business in this research.
We encourage all stakeholders to read the report and further internal as well as external multi-stakeholder dialogue around how to best prevent and mitigate adverse human rights impacts in supply chains.
Professor Gillian Triggs
Australian Human Rights Commission
Global Compacy Network Australia
Dr Leeora Black