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Europe takes a big step towards companies having ‘duty of care’ on #HumanRights



Last week, just prior to taking over the European Union presidency, the new Finnish government announced plans to make it compulsory for companies to conduct human rights checks. A year ago, this would have seemed out of the ordinary. But growing recognition of the human cost of weak regulations on business, coupled with an erosion of public trust in markets, has led to momentum around initiatives to ensure companies halt abuse in their supply chains, writes Business & Human Rights Resource Centre Executive Director Phil Bloomer.

On 14 May, the Dutch Senate adopted new legislation that says companies have a ‘duty of care’ to fight child labour in their supply chains. This year had already seen rumbles of debate around supply chain legislation in Germany, where a ministerial draft law became public in February, and related parliamentary debates kicking-off in the Danish parliament. On 3 June, the new Finnish government coalition published its programme, which includes a commitment to work towards such legislation nationally, but also at the European level, where it will control the EU presidency from 1 July.

The EU has passed legislation on specific issues such as illegally harvested timber or 'conflict minerals' in the past. But to regulate each issue separately has its limits. It was France that passed the first legislation with a general scope in 2017, the ‘Duty of Vigilance’ law. And this track has been followed in the political debates in Germany, the UK, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

These ideas are not radical. In 2011, the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopted by consensus new, coherent standards on how business should ensure it respects human rights in its global chains. A core element was the requirement to conduct due diligence on human rights risks in order to prevent such adverse impacts. Since then, the OECD has developed more detailed guidance on what good due diligence looks like. However, countries have been slow to turn this international soft law into hard law. Until now.

Companies seem to recognize this. William Anderson, in-house counsel for German footwear giant adidas, wrote for our blog series this week that “In short, it is not a question of if, but when such laws will be in place and how they will impact current business operations and practices”. In fact, a growing number of companies support this type of legislation, including BMW, Coca-Cola, and Trafigua, arguing that these laws level the playing field for responsible businesses and provide legal certainty of their responsibilities.

In the case of the Dutch child labour law, it was the chocolate company Tony's Chocolonely which launched a campaign in support of the legislation, and managed to rally larger industry peers such as Nestlé Nederland, Barry Callebaut and other major Dutch companies such as Heineken behind a supportive letter to parliament. In Finland the dynamics went one step further: businesses and civil society campaigned to have such legislation in the new government programme as a joint coalition, comprising 140 entities from Attac to Coca-Cola Finland.

But most companies aren’t prepared, and that is why we need these laws. Last November, the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark found that 40 out of 101 of some of the biggest companies in the world were failing to carry out proper human rights due diligence. Looking at 100 companies’ reports under the EU’s Non-Financial Reporting Directive, the Alliance of Corporate Transparency found that while 90% reported a commitment to respect human rights, only 36% describe their human rights due diligence system in any detail.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. At least 150 people died when Vale’s dam collapsed in Brumadinho, Brazil, on 25 January, and there are hundreds of high-risk dams out there. 166 million hidden workers are toiling for the world’s 50 biggest companies with no direct relationship or responsibility. The growing power of major tech companies like Facebook and Google increasingly impact all our privacy. Mandatory human rights due diligence on companies would go some way to ensuring that companies rid their operations and supply chains of abuses and are held responsible when they fail to act.

It’s good that many European countries seem to be recognizing this, and now they cannot afford to falter.


Switzerland votes in favour of continued free movement with EU



Today (27 September), Swiss citizens voted in a referendum to reject a proposal, sponsored by the Swiss People’s Party, to end the free movement of persons into Switzerland from the EU. 61.69% of voters rejected the initiative.

Surrounded by EU member states the Swiss economy has very close ties to Europe’s economy. About 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland and 450,000 Swiss live in the EU. Another 320,000 EU citizens cross the border daily to work in Switzerland. Free movement was initially granted under a 1999 agreement. The agreement includes the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, the right to buy property and social insurance benefits. Had the referendum been successful it would have brought this agreement to an end.

The chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation for Switzerland, Andreas Schwab MEP (DE, CDU), said: “The result of the referendum is proof that the Swiss citizens want to keep working with the EU. Switzerland and the EU are more than just very good partners. Every year Switzerland exports goods worth 109 billion euros to the EU.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the referendum result: "I welcome this outcome. I see it as a positive signal to continue to consolidate and deepen our relationship. I will soon speak to Mrs Sommaruga, President of the Swiss Confederation. I will congratulate her on this result.  Of course, I look forward to the Swiss Federal Council now moving swiftly on the signature and ratification of the International Framework Agreement that we negotiated in 2018."

Schwab is also anxious to complete the framework agreement between the EU and Switzerland, negotiations have taken place over four years and structural compromises were reached. He said: “We want this agreement because it creates legal certainty - for Europeans and Swiss! Strong relations with Switzerland are in the interests of the EU and Switzerland must now take into account the close cooperation it wants with the EU.”

Schwab has called on the Swiss government to be more courageous in defending and explaining the outcome of the negotiations with the EU to their people, he said he thought that the Swiss people may be a step ahead of their politicians.

For several years, Switzerland and the EU have been working towards solutions for the remaining institutional issues in the area of market access (legal developments, interpretation, supervision and dispute settlement). An institutional framework agreement (IFA) would allow for the consolidation and development of reciprocal market access.

The three main concerns of the Swiss on the IFA concern: Legal certainty for the current level of wage protection in Switzerland, (ii) exclusion of horizontal effects of the rules on state aid and (iii) no obligation for an integral adoption of the Citizens Rights Directive. The Swiss negotiators believe that it is only with assurances in these areas that they will be able to secure the necessary internal support.

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Deal signed to help protect thousands of indigenuous peoples



Russia’s metals and mining giant Nornickel has signed a cooperation agreement with the associations representing the indigenous peoples of the Taimyr Peninsula, a remote Arctic land dubbed “the last frontier of Russia” offering a five-year support programme worth 2 billion roubles (over €22 million at the current exchange rate), writes Martin Banks.

This big move shows that the mining company is engaging with the indigenous communities of the areas where it operates. The issue has come under the spotlight recently after another global miner Rio Tinto faced outrage after it had destroyed a 46,000-year-old Indigenous heritage site in Western Australia.

The Nornickel’s support programme, signed on Friday, includes a wide range of initiatives aimed at protecting the natural habitat and supporting indigenous peoples’ traditional activities.

The money will be used to build new homes, hospitals, schools, for infrastructural and cultural projects.

The initiative was drawn up after 100 interviews and various polls of the indigenous communities. Priority areas for support were identified as the creation of seasonal jobs in tourism and other industries, reindeer husbandry, fishing and hunting. The 40 new initiatives also include workshops for reindeer and fish processing, purchase of refrigeration units, construction of an ethnical complex with workshops for fur processing and subsidises of helicopter transportation.

Nornickel Federal and Regional Programmes Vice President Andrey Grachev said the programme is aimed at “stimulating the economic activity of the indigenous peoples and facilitating the use of renewable resources – the basis of their traditional lifestyle”.

He added: “Nornickel has a long history of close cooperation with organizations representing the interests of indigenous communities in the regions of our operations, ensuring transparency in decision-making and that joint projects are implemented in the most efficient manner possible.”

Further comment comes from Grigory Ledkov, President of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North in Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, who said the agreement “can serve as an example for other companies, as it emphasizes the importance of preserving the habitat of indigenous people and protecting our values and traditions.”

He said that gathering opinions of indigenous populations was “a huge step in the right direction and will serve as a model for future projects of this kind”.

The results of this exercise, he said: “Will help develop initiatives which will be of paramount importance for indigenous populations.

“This agreement will help us find new joint approaches to sustainable living and working in the North, as well as resolve other pressing issues facing local communities.”

The company already offers a range of support in the region ranging from air transportation, the procurement of building materials and diesel fuel, as well as cultural events and celebrations.

The agreement was signed in Moscow by Grachev and Ledkov along with Artur Gayulsky, President of the Regional Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Krasnoyarsk Territory, and Grigory Dyukarev, Chairman of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of Taimyr, Krasnoyarsk Territory.

Nornickel, the world’s largest producer of palladium and high-grade nickel, has already invested 277m roubles (over €3m) between 2018 and 2020 towards support and development of the regions.

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Will COVID-19 change the UK’s attitudes towards immigration for good?



During the lead up to the Brexit vote in 2016, political debate in the UK was often focused on immigration, with the migrant crisis reaching its peak just a year prior. And whilst perhaps not the sole reason as to why the UK public voted to leave the EU, it’s evident that concerns surrounding immigration had a significant impact writes Reanna Smith.

But fast forward four years, three prime ministers, an endless slog of negotiations and a global pandemic, and it’s clear that Britain isn’t the same country it was during the 2016 referendum. The UK is just now seeing what leaving the European Union will mean, with the newly proposed immigration rules set to come into place at the start of 2021, but the debate surrounding immigration has changed dramatically in the wake of coronavirus. 

According to IPSOS MORI, immigration has been one of the top issues concerning the UK public for years, but with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s suddenly dropped from the top 10 list altogether. It's no surprise that COVID-19 has taken the top spot, but there’s evidence to suggest that immigration has disappeared because of the way that the pandemic has changed attitudes towards the issue massively. 

COVID-19 has highlighted just how important immigrants are to the country, making up a large number of the “key workers” at the frontline of the response to the pandemic. According to the most recent report from the House of Commons, there’s over 169,000 non-British staff in the NHS making up a large 13.8% of our health service. Not only have immigrants been vital to saving lives during the pandemic in the UK, but they’ve also been affected more than anyone else in the country. Amnesty International recently revealed that throughout the pandemic the UK has had one of the highest death rates amongst healthcare workers, with BAME (black, Asian, and Minority-ethnic) workers being disproportionately affected by this. This was a fact further highlighted when it was revealed in April that the 10 doctors, all of whom were immigrants, had died from coronavirus. So, whilst COVID has devastated many people, there’s no dispute that immigrants working in the NHS and health care system have taken a disproportionate hit. 

It’s also clear that this immense sacrifice has had an effect on public opinion and policy in the UK, in 2016 one in three members of the UK population saw immigration as a top issue. But from April to July immigration had almost dropped off the political agenda. As immigrants became the heroes of the pandemic, tabloid headlines shifted from vilifying migrants to praising them for their contributions. At the same time, MP’s began calling for foreign NHS workers to have their visas extended for free and the public was outraged that those fighting to save lives were having to pay a surcharge to use the very same system they played a key role in. This eventually resulted in Boris Johnson announcing he would scrap the £400-a-year fees.

As well as this, the new immigration rules have come under fire for being hypocritical of the government's “key worker” list. The new points-based system will require immigrants to have a job offer with a salary of at least £25,600 to be granted the title of “skilled worker” and be eligible for a Tier 2 Work Visa. Many occupations considered vital during the last 6 months don’t come with salaries high enough to fit this requirement. A massive 58% of EU born and 49% of non-EU born full-time key workers aged 25 to 64 would not qualify for a Tier 2 Visa under the newly proposed immigration rules. 

Despite changing public attitudes, and shifting immigration policies, August saw a spike in anti-immigrant sentiment as a record number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel saw the UK media and politicians put immigration on the top of the agenda once again. 

Boris Johnson has hinted at tighter immigration and asylum laws, only four months after his life was saved by two immigrant nurses when he contracted the virus himself. Painting immigration as a big issue now may be down to the impending economic recession that the UK faces, as the government looks to push the blame onto anyone but themselves. Ironically, immigrants could prove very necessary to help the country recover economically, and tighter restrictions would mean too few immigrants in sectors like healthcare, education, and hospitality. 

Despite the move towards more negative perceptions once again by the media and politicians, it’s too early yet to tell whether the public will follow suit. The pandemic has taught the UK many things but perhaps most importantly, it’s taught us that the economic value of human beings it most definitely not a reflection of the value these same people may hold to society. The post-pandemic landscape should reflect the UK's appreciation for immigrants, but the proposed changes fail to do this. 

Reanna Smith writes for the Immigration Advice Service, team of dedicated lawyers that offer advice and assistance with a variety of immigration issues.  

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