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New Guide – Protecting Human Rights in the Supply Chain

There is a depressingly long list of threats to these rights that have been observed in public sector supply chains. They include forced and bonded labour, human trafficking, unsafe working conditions, child labour, very low or even no pay, and discrimination.

We might tend to think these things happen in far off countries, and not in the firms we deal with. But “slave labour” is present in the UK, in domestic and industrial situations, and some very reputable companies (suppleirs to the public sector) in the IT industry for instance have found major human rights issues in their own supply chains.

The authors of the document are Andy Davies, who leads the London Univeristiies Purchaisng Consortium, and Dr Olga Martin-Ortega from the University of Greeenwich. Both also have experience and involvement in these issues through initiatives such as Electronics Watch and the International Learning Lab on Public Procurement and Human Rights. The guide is published by LUPC, the University of Greenwich and CIPS (the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply).

The guide runs through an explanation of the problem, and why it matters to the public sector (just as it should also matter to the private sector, of course). It suggests how practitioners can get started in terms of identifying and prioritising human rights-related risks in their supply chains, and how monitoring can be carried out.

The thinking is very interesting in terms of how organistions should respond to abuse or issues that might be uncovered when working with suppliers. The authors are not in favour of draconian action – if suppliers know that the contract will be immediately terminated, for instance, they are less likely to be open about any problems that they uncover. They will hide issues rather than be open with the buyer. Rather, the guide suggests a collaborative approach, working with the supplier to put remedial actions in place. Only as a very last resort is termination sensible. That seems to be a good approach. The final section of the guidance is then on measuring and reporting effectiveness.

Overall, the guide will be very useful and provides an excellent overview of the issues. In a couple of places, a little more information or education might have bene useful; for instance, the need to prioritise spend categories is highlighted, but it might have been useful to describe some of the areas or sectors where human rights abuse is most likely, based on real experience.

We might also question whether going down into multiple tiers of the supply chain is quite as easy as the guide makes it sound! Although it does acknowledge some issues, we think the sheer scale of analysing multiple supply chains across multiple suppliers is very significant.  Going down to the fourth tier as the authors suggests is a major task, and we would suggest not easy to achieve using just spreadsheets. Clearly, this is not meant to be a guide to technology, but ultimately, we suspect that risk management and supply chain / supplier information tools will really help in this area.

We published a paper recently on the topic of risk in multiple tier supply chains – that was not just focused on human rights, but the principles absolutely apply, and in the paper, we do explain why these initiatives are often very challenging.

It is important though that practitioners do make a start in this area, and whilst getting to the ultimate desired state is challenging, there is no reason why organisations shouldn’t make a start, following the principles outlined here. The guide is well worth reading and indeed studying, so we would strongly suggest all public sector procurement professionals take a look. Indeed, anyone in the private sector interested in human rights, reputational risk in the supply chain and similar issues will also find it useful.

It can be downloaded here.

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