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Continuing from Part 1 yesterday on how public purchasers can do things differently to help promote human rights in the supply chain – an LUPC initiative suggests the tender stage is Not where to start.

To carry out due diligence properly, the buyer needs to be in a close working relationship with the supplier. There’s neither the time nor resources to do this with a whole group of bidders in a tender process, it’s just not practical. And anyway, with supply chains constantly on the move, the exercise would be out of date before the contract can be awarded. Moreover, to make effective use of limited resources, public purchasers need to address spend categories in order of risk, by addressing those product groups and source countries that represent the highest risk first. By addressing human rights risks primarily in the tender process, we’d be addressing them in the order the contracts come up for renewal, which is neither efficient nor effective.

So how should public purchasers promote respect for human rights in their supply chains? Well, here’s the bad news: it’s not going to be easy. Despite what they tell you, it can’t be resolved by signing up to some piece of software. Those people are selling snake oil. The main tools for protecting human rights are, currently, supply chain mapping and monitoring. They are imperfect, and they are also costly, resource-intensive and time-consuming. It’s not a superficial exercise. This is definitely not just another hoop.

At best, labour rights abuses involve breaches of local or international labour laws. At worst, workers’ exploitation is slavery, a criminal act in every country in the world. Nevertheless, it is rife in a great many countries. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 21 million people today live a life of enforced servitude – double the total number of direct victims of the African slave trade in the period from 1650 to 1900. So working to free our public supply chains from all human rights abuses is a far from modest task. To be successful will require considerable resources and a great deal of time.

The better news is that the task becomes a lot easier if it is conducted in collaboration between public authorities. The complex tasks of supply chain mapping with suppliers to identify the highest-risk areas, implementing mitigating actions and then monitoring to sniff out abuses as they occur can be a burden shared by public authorities – by sector, nationally and internationally. Electronics Watch is a prime example of an international co-operation between affiliated public authorities to monitor global electronics supply chains, aiming to protect workers from human rights abuses. In this way, dedicated category experts work with industry leaders on behalf of public authorities at a far more affordable cost.

It will take time for more category-specific monitoring organisations to emerge. But there are lots of things we can be doing in the meantime. We recommend that conditions are included in every contract with every supplier, if only to make sure that suppliers understand exactly what the public authority’s policy is and to secure their co-operation with it. But we would warn against threatening termination the minute any human rights abuse is exposed, as this engenders a counter-productive atmosphere of fear and concealment, pushing the problem elsewhere in the supply chain, rather than building the relationships necessary to tackle the problem together.

There are also some simple steps that public purchasers can take in some of the highest-risk categories right here in the UK. These take little time and resources. Many smaller contractors in the cleaning and security service industries, for example, employ their workers directly and undertake all the necessary checks themselves, thus reducing the risk of trafficking. But larger suppliers may need to engage third parties to recruit large groups of workers at short notice. Public buyers can ask that third-party recruitment is audited by the supplier to check for the tell-tale signs of human trafficking – large numbers of workers resident at a single address, for example, or with sequential bank account numbers. These actions can be replicated in the food industry, where trafficking has been a major problem. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority can offer advice and training on how to check for signs among workers across a range of industries.

In public procurement, just as in private business, our responsibilities are changing and reaching far beyond simple cost reduction. We are also here to help develop our relationship with business, to help promote socio-economic well-being, help protect the environment and help protect people from exploitation. We’re no longer just deal-doers. We are risk managers.

We would welcome any views from our readers, and will give details of the guidance document as soon as it is available.

And for those interested in further discussion, Andy will be taking part in a Q&A panel at the end of two screenings of a film called “Complicit” during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London next month. The film is about the plight of workers who contract leukaemia after exposure to chemicals in a Chinese electronics factory. The two screenings are March 11, Picturehouse Central, 5.30pm and March 13, Barbican at 6.15pm. More details are here.

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