by Brian Collett — Global laws compelling national and transnational corporations to observe human rights have been urged by a senior UN official on his retirement.
The call was made to the UN General Assembly by the Kenyan lawyer Maina Kiai when he delivered his final report as the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
Kiai was adding his voice to a worldwide clamour for international laws to ensure ethical conduct in business, but a UN spokesman accepted that they would be hard to enforce on companies and even harder to impose on governments. “You can’t exactly lock them up,” he said.
The UN recommends persistent pressure as the strongest weapon. It believes, for example, that the publicity around the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh three years ago had a beneficial effect.
The UN spokesman said companies fear the criticism that will damage their trading and push down their share prices.
Kiai emphasised in his report that 30 countries have extended labour protection to domestic workers but many do not recognise them as “workers” in law.
In Ethiopia, Jordan and Ontario, Canada, for example, domestic workers are legally exempt from trade union representation, and the UK and France are among many countries that exclude them from the jurisdiction of labour inspectorates.
Kiai picked out the Philippines as a country that theoretically recognised collective bargaining but set limits and budgetary restrictions that hampered public sector negotiating rights.
He named Peru, Georgia and Cambodia as states that use and allow companies to employ informal labour, giving short-term contracts to avoid legal obligations such as paying minimum wages and to prevent unionisation, with the result that workers are denied assembly and association rights.
He said other countries, including Nigeria and Indonesia, permitted harassment and intimidation, leading to the murder of workers, trade unionists, activists and journalists.
Even in Tennessee in the US authorities were reported to have offered nearly $300m (£247m, €275m) in incentives to Volkswagen for adding a production line to a factory on condition that the plant remained non-unionised.
Having produced a long list of employers’ abuses, Kiai explained that corporate social responsibility projects were no substitute for “legally binding, robust enforcement of rights”.
The need then, said the UN spokesman, was the weapon of international disapproval. “It’s a big stick to beat them with,” he said.