General overview of Human Rights Due Diligence and Fairtrade’s commitment to the approach

Interested in Human Rights Due Diligence basics, but not sure you have the time for the whole webinar recording? Read this article about the key contents first!

Article by Jessica Rocha

The responsibility to respect human rights is not about nice little charity projects that companies might fund. It is about … their core business and making sure that in their core business they do not make any human right problems worse.

Long before talk of “Human Rights Due Diligence,” (HRDD), Fairtrade has focused on core human rights issues in global supply chains: working and living conditions on farms.

Now, businesses are increasingly required to account for how their practices impact human rights by conducting HRDD. They’re expecting Fairtrade to take a leading role. At the same time, Fairtrade needs to ensure producers have a strong voice in the process.

“Farmers and workers are at the heart of everything we do,” said Marike de Peña, chair of CAN, the alliance of the African, Asian and Latin American Producer Networks. “It’s very important to make sure that HRDD does not end up being a burden for smallholders and workers.”

It’s very important to make sure that HRDD does not end up being a burden for smallholders and workers.

That is the subject of “HRDD Basics” webinar presented by Tytti Nahi and Meri Hyrske-Fischer from the Fairtrade HRDD Center of Excellence in Finland, along with Marike, based in the Dominican Republic. It is the first in a six-part webinar series on HRDD in a Fairtrade context.

Tytti, Meri and Marike presented in the HRDD Webinar #1

Weak regulations are no excuse

While the idea that individuals have rights and states have the duty to protect people has been around for a long time, businesses’ responsibilities had not been specified until the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011.

The Guiding Principles clarify that businesses need to make efforts to reduce and end human rights breaches like insufficient standards of living and wages even if the local laws aren’t strong or enforcement is weak.

“Previously it was completely accepted by legal experts when a company said, ‘well yes, we recognize that our supplier in Ethiopia pays rather low wages, but the Ethiopian minimum wage legislation is lacking so we are all acting legally’,” Tytti said.

“Today that is not okay anymore,” she added. “Companies’ responsibility to respect human rights is independent of states.”

Ongoing responsibility

That’s where Human Rights Due Diligence, or HRDD, comes in. Essentially a process of managing human rights risks and impacts, HRDD requires a commitment to be more transparent about a business’ impacts on the full range of human rights and all corporate functions.

The OECD defines HRDD in six steps as “an ongoing process of identifying, preventing, mitigating and accounting for how businesses address their adverse impacts on human rights.”

Image: HRDD process, depicted in the OECD DD guidance for Responsible Business Conduct

The responsibility goes way beyond hot-button issues like forced labor and child labor. Those are important, but the obligation extends to all human rights, including issues at the core of Fairtrade’s work—living incomes and living wages, decent working conditions, and also environmental rights not yet formally codified by the UN.

“Human rights cannot be fully enjoyed without a safe, clean and healthy environment,” Meri told the group. “The consensus today is that environmental degradation causes human rights violations.”

Many business activities can have adverse impacts on human rights. Purchasing practices may be unfair and keep suppliers in poverty, advertising can be sexist or promote very unhealthy consumption, private data can be mishandled, products may be unsafe, or production may pollute drinking water – to name just a few possible scenarios.

HRDD is not just a one-off exercise either. Respect for human rights should be baked into business operations, including tracking and reporting outcomes so that stakeholders can hold companies responsible.

Bottom-up approach

“The business and human rights framework is the result of decades of pushing and lobbying by human rights and civil society organizations with a large CSO presence from the South”, Tytti said. “This also shows up in UN and OECD guidelines for HRDD. They emphasize that companies are to engage and have dialogue with rights-holders like farmers and workers.”

But the threat of corporate influence diluting voices and then the entire process exists. That’s why HRDD must prioritize dialogue and collaboration—and why Fairtrade must lead by example.

“This battle is on, and organizations like Fairtrade are needed in this discussion to emphasize how important it is to do this bottom-up and how the root causes of human rights challenges can only be understood and addressed with dialogue and collaboration,” Tytti said.

Fairtrade can lead

Fairtrade can lead the way on ensuring farmers and workers have a strong voice, that they know their rights, and have leverage to hold businesses responsible for their role in any human rights violations.

At the same time, Fairtrade must align its own standards with HRDD guidelines because certifying bodies and multi-stakeholder groups are increasingly expected to follow the same HRDD guidance as businesses. For instance, about 700 Cambodian families have accused the sugar certification scheme Bonsucro for failing to hold a member company accountable for land-grabbing that left them homeless about 10 years ago.

ISEAL Alliance is working on HRDD guidance for its members, and Rainforest Alliance has recently aligned its certification system with the UNGP.

Indeed, Fairtrade International’s Board approved a Human Rights Commitment in June. It lists Fairtrade’s most salient human rights issues and also pledges to undertake a novel type of a Fairtrade-wide Human Rights Impact Assessment starting in 2021.

“As a human rights-based organization, we need to…make sure the commitments are not just on paper but in actions,” Marike said.

The “HRDD Basics” webinar provides a general overview of Human Rights Due Diligence and Fairtrade’s commitment to the approach. To have access to the webinar recording and presentation, please click here.