The European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights place duties on the State to protect against human rights abuses by businesses and provide access to remedy for victims.
A report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) found that better legislation and enforcement of the law are needed to ensure adequate protection of workers' human rights in the UK.
Although the JCHR commended the government for introducing a National Action Plan in 2013 for the protection of human rights at work, the committee criticised the 2016 version for being too “modest in scope” and failing to incorporate best practice in terms of measurable objectives.
It said that the Government should lead by example, included amongst its recommendations that:
- Procurement officers should be able to exclude companies who have not undertaken human rights due diligence from all public sector contracts
- Laws be introduced to make reporting on due diligence for all other human rights compulsory for large business
- Legislation which imposes a duty on all companies to prevent human rights abuses, as well as a criminal offence of “failure to prevent human rights abuses” similar to offences created for bribery in the Bribery Act 2010
- Legislation to enable prosecution of a parent company where human rights abuses are found further down the supply chain
- The Government support the proposals contained within the Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill which requires commercial businesses and public bodies to include a statement on slavery and human trafficking in their annual report and accounts
- Human rights be a key component of future trade deals.
The JCHR found that the UK is weakest on remedy. It considered that there were a number of obstacles to justice including changes to legal aid, the limit on the recovery of costs and increases in court and tribunal fees. In terms of effective enforcement of the law, the Committee recommended that the government should:
- extend the powers of the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority to other industries, such as construction, and consult with them on new powers for local authorities to close down business premises found to exploit workers through underpayment of wages, lack of employment contracts or where there is a significant disregard of health and safety regulations
- Reduce fees payable by claimants when taking a case to an employment tribunal
- Reassure workers that all victims of human rights abuses will be protected without reference to nationality or immigration status.
Jo Seery of Thompsons Solicitors said “It is not right that in the 21st century some workers are denied basic human rights such as being paid below the national minimum wage and in dangerous working conditions.
If the Government is serious about addressing human rights abuses, it must ensure that those who are most vulnerable have access to justice. As set out in the JCHR recommendations, fees to bring claims represents ‘a barrier to victims seeking justice when they have suffered human rights abuses, including discrimination, at the hands of their employers and offer impunity for employers abusing human rights’.”
To read the report in full, go to: https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201617/jtselect/jtrights/443/44302.htm