Human rights not a minor issue

Human rights not a minor issue

Child labor in a cobalt mine in Congo © Thomas Coombes/amnesty international

Human rights not a minor issue

Bangladeshi seamstresses © dpa

With a national action plan, the German government wants to ensure that German companies take responsibility for working conditions abroad. Armin Pasch of the Catholic relief organization Misereor criticizes the plans as too lax.

Interviewer: There are United Nations baselines on business and human rights. In Berlin, they were now discussing how to break that down to Germany. These consultations are criticized – by Amnesty International, Bread for the World but also by you. If the government wants to do something about this – what is there to criticize??

Armin Paasch (Business and Human Rights Officer at Misereor: The problem is that the German government has been discussing a possible national action plan for business and human rights for two years now. However, the current result is that companies are not to be legally obligated to respect human rights abroad. At the moment, it is only a recommendation to be made in a very non-binding way: There is to be no check on whether human rights are actually being respected, and in the event that companies simply ignore them, there would be no consequences at all.
Interviewer: That is, as a textile manufacturer, you are not bound by the recommendation and no one slaps you on the wrist if you do not comply with it?
Paasch: Quite right. These UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights date back to 2011 already. The recommendation to implement this is also nothing new. If the German government only repeats this recommendation, it does not mean progress. What we want is an actual, legal commitment.

This means that if companies do not take their human rights due diligence obligations seriously and do not implement them, they face fines. Victims must have the possibility to sue in civil courts and there must also be consequences in that companies can be excluded from foreign trade promotion or from public contracts or subsidies if they disregard human rights.

Interviewer: If we now take the example of a T-shirt that someone has sewn in Bangladesh or Pakistan: Is the situation of the local people really that bad??

PaaschWhat has been discussed a lot in the media is only the tip of the iceberg – these fire disasters or the collapse of buildings in Bangladesh and Pakistan. But the problem is more widespread. The problem is that people in textile factories do not get decent wages on which they and their families can live. They have no fixed contracts, get no vacation. Sometimes there are even cases of slavery. Occupational health and safety regulations are not respected.

This is a problem not only in Bangladesh or in Pakistan, but also in Turkey, in Honduras and in many other countries. Initiatives are only slowly being launched to improve the situation. So far, however, this is only a drop in the bucket.

Interviewer: And the textile industry is not the only area where there are problems, is it??

Paasch: Quite right. If we look at the statistics, we see that most of the human rights complaints relate to the raw materials and energy sectors. When copper is mined in Peru, for example, people are sometimes displaced, groundwater is contaminated, and health is affected. In South Africa, we have noticed the involvement of German companies in two coal-fired power plants that are emitting pollutants, which also pose a threat to the right to health. German companies are involved!

In a study, we found that companies do not admit to this, however, that they have their own responsibility to also respect human rights in such business relationships and to look closely at what consequences their business relationships might have for human rights.

Interviewer: So what has to happen so that we finally deal with it more responsibly?

PaaschOne is of course the public. But we have also seen in recent years that it is not enough for the scandals to go through the media, if they are also reported in the mainstream media. This shocks people, causes a bad conscience and a part of them might decide to buy ecological and fairly produced clothes or other products. But many people can't afford it or don't deal with the ie that much.

That is why we think that the legislator must become active here. It must stipulate for all companies that human rights must be respected and that it is not possible to do business abroad and profit there from cheap labor – but when it comes to human rights, people do not look so closely. But that is exactly what the Federal Ministry of Finance wants at the moment: namely to water down a national action plan so much that it would only be a totally non-binding recommendation that would not have to be heeded by companies. This is actually an invitation to consider human rights as a secondary matter.

The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.

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