In 2013, the UK Government was one of the first globally to commit to a national action plan regarding implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Since June last year, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has been conducting an inquiry into business and human rights investigating the UK’s progress. As part of that on-going inquiry, on 25 January, senior directors from several leading British fashion retailers appeared before the committee to answer questions on human rights issues in the apparel industry.

This is the first group of senior managers from a particular industry to give oral evidence to the committee. But with the inquiry focused on a range of industries (extractives, textiles, agriculture, food and beverages, financial services and manufacturing) further evidence from industry seems likely.

Not only does the transcript of this session provide an insight into how the apparel industry is responding to these challenges, but it also sheds light on the committee’s key concerns in this area.

So what did the committee want to know? Some of the key themes arising from the committee’s questions were:

  • the reasons industry focuses on human rights issues: the committee was keen to know if the motivation was driven by morals, a sense of legal jeopardy or the potential impact on the bottom line;

  • the specific human rights issues the companies have faced: the senior managers were asked to provide the public inquiry with specific information on instances reported to them of child labour, forced labour and workers not being able to join a trade union within their supply chains;

  • relationships with sub-contractors: specifically, the consequences for sub-contractors who breach minimum standards for workers or terms and conditions prohibiting onward outsourcing to third parties who may have lower standards;

  • trade unions and labour rights: the committee wanted to know what steps the apparel companies were taking to ensure workers in their supply chains have trade union or similar rights;

  • the companies’ experience and awareness of national contact points; and

  • remedies for individuals whose rights have been breached: the committee asked for views on whether those individuals should have an effective remedy against the companies for breaches occurring within the supply chain. As the committee chair noted, ‘if that is a way of holding you to account, is it not a good way forward, as opposed to the more evolutionary process we have been hearing about?

    With the Modern Slavery Act, the UK has positioned itself at the forefront of the effort to raise standards within international business on human rights. And the committee is now considering if there is more to do. Amongst other things, the committee will report on ‘whether, and if so what, progress British business has made in carrying out its responsibility to respect human right' and 'whether victims of human rights abuse involving business enterprises within UK jurisdiction have access to effective remedy.’

    Whilst the outcome of the inquiry is still some way away, this is a good reminder to business of the very public scrutiny they can face from government over their commitments to human rights.

    We will continue to monitor the inquiry and will report on further developments on the Freshfields Global Business and Human Rights Blog.