Global treaty 'only realistic way' to stop supply chain abuse: Rights group

International norms not legally binding

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A new international treaty is needed to compel businesses to stamp out abuses such as child labour and modern-day slavery in their supply chains, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday at the start of a global labour summit in Geneva.

Around the world and estimated 21 million are trapped in forced labour, according to the United Nations' International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates.

Many, including workers producing clothing for global brands, children working in tobacco farms, artisanal miners and migrant construction workers experience abuses and don't have access to complaint mechanisms or lawyers, HRW said in a report.

The rights group said the ILO should get the ball rolling to draft a new treaty under which governments would require companies to have human rights safeguards throughout their supply chains.

"Millions of people around the world suffer human rights abuses because of businesses' poor practices and lax government regulation," said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children's rights director at HRW, said.

"Legally binding rules are the only realistic way to ensure that companies don't exploit workers or contribute to labour abuses," Kippenberg said in a statement.

International norms aimed at preventing abuses are not legally binding, allowing businesses to ignore them, HRW said.

"Voluntary standards on human rights and business are not enough," she said.

"Some companies embrace them, but others don't care and ignore their human rights responsibilities. The International Labour Conference is a unique opportunity to change this ineffective laissez-faire system."

HRW said initiatives such as the Dodd Frank Act in the United States or Britain's Modern Slavery Act, which require companies to disclose information about their supply chains, have improved supply chain transparency.

Elizabeth George, a London-based employment lawyer, said that controlling the treatment and conditions of workers down the supply chain shouldn't be left for businesses to regulate.

"A binding agreement between governments sends the right message that safer, fairer and more humane workplaces are a human right, not a business choice," George said via email.

The International Labour Conference is a global summit bringing together governments, employers, workers from the 187 ILO member states to discuss labour-related issues, including global supply chains. 

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