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The NIHRC Blog #9

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Our February blog post is written by Glenn Bradley, Chair of the Northern Ireland Business and Human Rights Forum.

Northern Ireland: Let’s Be Principled Pragmatists Practicing Business & Human Rights

The Northern Ireland Business and Human Rights Forum was established in 2015 and is a multi-stakeholder platform which allows Government, business, and civil society to engage on business and human rights.

Our work is directed by our members with reference to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and we practice an open forum to discuss human rights issues in relation to business in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and share good practice.

Our Forum meetings are held quarterly, hosted by members of the forum and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission provides the forum’s Secretariat.

I am presently the Chair elected by my peers, and as I approach the 1 year anniversary of that responsibility I considered a blog post charting how we reached this stage - the Forum now being an invaluable informative tool for sharing.

For me, the UK and possibly the Irish evolution story in practical Business and Human Rights begins with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

ETI was founded In 1998, when the then UK Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, announced government support for an initiative to develop a code of business conduct for trading with the world’s poorest countries. ETI’s role was to foster, progress and ripen a benchmark set of voluntary rules that became known as the Base Code.

The ETI is a unique alliance of corporate companies, trade unions and non-governmental organisations, working in partnership to improve conditions for workers who manufacture and supply goods or materials to the UK and Irish consumer market. ETI’s vision from the outset was a world where all workers are free from exploitation and discrimination, and work in conditions of freedom, security & equity.

Since 2000, the directorate of ETI have actively supported Corporate Companies to tackle working conditions in their supply chains. Member companies adopt the base code, and report annually on their progress in implementing it. In addition, the collaborative actions at the ground source of products or materials help identify good practice case studies - or through practical research and projects, such as the work of our business Hardscape in the Rajasthan Sandstone Workers Group.

ETI also provides training courses and resources to help companies put their principles into practice.

In 2018, there is no doubt that ethical trade has evolved and is accelerating as all of us see snowballing repair and remedy legislation, crusading perusal and liability standards - all positive enterprise, in my view. Yet there has also been industrial unrest when rights to honorable work were ignored, violent attacks on worker representation and, in some countries or regions, a diminishing - if not boiling down - of democratic rights.

As a business man operating in the National and International corporate world, I must admit I am fearful at witnessing what could be the beginning of a chasm between the ethical attainment of responsible ethical companies and the performance of what the authors of the newly launched “2018 Methodology” describe as “laggards”.

The Company I work for, Hardscape, has been active in ETI since 2007. The Company is at ‘Achiever’ ranking in the ETI corporate member category and some of our work in ethical trade has been modelled as “good practice” by Government. We are leading by example to demonstrate our belief that moving beyond paper CSR to underpin the ETI Base Code Principles as the foundation stone of our supply chain worker rights is the correct attainment for any business, whether an SME or a Multi-National. It is essential that the chasm between an ethical performer such as ourselves and the rest of business is branched and today, in 2018, that can be achieved through business implementing the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights.

As a worker and human rights activist, I believe no company can or should ignore their social responsibility issues. Every businessman, every member of a procurement department, every employee whether in the private or the public sector is empowered to understand and respect the value of human rights, asserting them as part of the business process. All staff can / should participate in shaping and directing decisions that affect human rights in the corporate supply chain. The business case for the UNGPs needs reaffirmed: the quest for low cost products or materials regardless of human or labour rights consequence must stop.

At the Northern Ireland Business and Human Rights Forum meetings - which take place quarterly - we have leading thinkers and influencers from the business, Government, public sector, trade union and human rights communities speaking on their experiences - which reflect some of the key ethical trade challenges that confront workers and their representatives or business or NGOs or Governments. Case studies are regularly presented and the Forum seeks to encourage a constructive approach that looks to the horizon whilst learning from the past.

At the Forum, we wish to embed a philosophy of continuous improvement. We will also discuss and broaden out on a range of other related topics: the challenge facing workers post-BREXIT, the Human Trafficking aspect to the Modern Slavery Act, and other areas specific to business and human rights matters.

As the world moves towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, despite being without functioning Government, let not this small region of Ireland lag behind. Permit business to do what it does best: improvise and adopt with principled pragmatism so that the SDGs become reality.

09 Feb 2018

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