We live in an ever more integrated world in which big business has been accumulating wealth and influence, while workers have been denied their fair share. There is no simple answer to the problems globalisation causes, but a large part certainly lies with corporate governance of businesses and their behaviour.
The once popular concept of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ has proven to be little more than words with no concrete action, politicians and practitioners have gradually been looking at Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) as a more effective alternative.
Launched by the OECD, RBC is about recognising that companies behaviours cause grave human rights abuses, such as fundamental labour rights violations or land-grabbing - and that a change in their behaviour can end abuses and offer remedy to victims. RBC therefore seeks to lead companies to conduct due diligence and minimise the adverse impacts of their operations throughout their supply chains, with a fine balance of legislation and peer pressure.
A lot has been done in this respect in the European Parliament over the last 5 years, in particular in the field of trade - with the ground breaking conflict minerals legislation - and development - in particular in the garment sector. But the RBC agenda cuts across many other policy areas, from accounting standards to non-financial reporting, and it is only appropriate that MEPs from different political groups, sitting in different parliamentary committees, decided to unite their strength and work together for this common goal.
The European Parliament’s Responsible Conduct Working Group has been working for some months now, liaising with business and public institutions in many countries to push for real change - most recently in Malaysia where forced-labour is routinely used by companies supplying the EU market.
The Malaysian government recently declared ‘war on forced labour’, but experts on the ground we have been working with were quick to point out that there is little substance to back this strong rhetoric. In raising our concerns directly with the businesses involved, EU national governments and the European Commission, we are hoping to change the mood music and support those who want to see change wherever they are. The EU has strong bargaining power with countries like Malaysia, who largely depend on their exports to us - in particular to public bodies through procurement contracts. Trade talks are also great opportunities to insert binding clauses to ban the most harmful practices and increase transparency overall.
On 19 March the RBC working group will launch the Shadow EU Action Plan, a set of policy proposals aimed at the European Commission and the Council of the European Union - so that the business and human rights agenda features high in the EU’s agenda for the next five years.
As a British MEP, I won’t be there in all likelihood to see this through in Brussels. But I trust that many will take up the work that we have started.