Rights for People, Rules for Corporations

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 13:24

It is high time that we are able to hold corporations accountable for human rights abuses!

At ActionAid, we have decades of experience working with people and their movements fighting for their rights and exposing the negative impacts of big business on communities: from struggles against land grabbing and tax avoidance by multinational corporations, to supporting women workers in sweatshops at the bottom of global garment value chains to organise and fight for their rights at work. 

Today, as part of a vast European alliance, we are launching a major campaign on Rights for people, rules for corporations. Throughout 2019, we want to change the system, guarantee that human rights, labour rights and environmental protection come before profit, and see to it that women and men impacted by business activities are able to claim their rights. You can sign the petition below.

Why do we need this campaign?

Today’s global trade and investment system privileges the interests of large corporates and investors over government commitments to human rights, women’s rights and the environment. It is an economic system that is harming many people in Europe, as well as communities in the Global South, and women are disproportionately affected. Read our 2018 report, From Rhetoric to Rights: Towards Gender-Just Trade, for more information about this.

Individuals and communities affected by corporate abuses have limited access to remedy and justice: there are currently no effective international or European-wide rules to ensure access to remedy for victims of human rights abuses committed by multinationals. Facing many barriers to justice, victims struggle to hold corporations accountable, and often experience threats, intimidation and violence when they try to do so – with women facing particular gender-based rights violations

This means that corporations are getting away with wide-reaching violations of human rights, and especially of women’s rights: from discrimination, harassment and violence against the young women who are concentrated in exploitative, poorly paid and insecure jobs along global supply chains; to grabbing the land of local communities; to causing environmental harm and putting the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, producers and informal sector workers at risk. Women are often disproportionately impacted, seeing as they are over-represented in the informal sector, and constitute a significant proportion of small-scale farmers in the Global South.

From the mining sector….

Blasts from the nearby Mlalazi Mine have left Margaret Zodwa Zulu’s home in Clewer, South Africa, scattered with cracks on both the walls and windows. During mine blasts local residents have, on occasion, fled their homes for safety because of the very real fear that their homes would collapse on them. 

Zodwa no longer hangs her laundry outside because of the persistent dust coming from the mine. Boreholes have been rendered useless in supplying safe drinking water. Underground water sources are now polluted, acidic and cause severe diarrhoea.

Read our 2017 report, Living Next to the Mine: Women’s struggles in mining affected communities, for more examples of the impact of mining on women.

To the garment sector.

ActionAid interviewed women garment workers in Cambodia and found that more than half of them had experienced or witnessed harassment at work, including bullying from peers and managers and sexual harassment. Supervisors – who are mostly male – issue verbal threats in order to force women to work overtime.

ActionAid also found that over 90% of women in Phnom Penh felt at risk of rape, verbal abuse and harassment by men who loiter around the factory gates, especially after dark.

Read our 2017 report, Double Jeopardy: Violence against women and economic inequality, for more examples of abuses committed against women in the current global economic system.

Meanwhile, in stark contrast, the current trade and investment system gives corporations special privileges. Many trade deals between countries include a clause on ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlements) that allows corporations to sue governments for huge sums of money in secret courts whenever governments adopt legislation that could harm their profits. A few known examples include lawsuits against governments for regulating the pollution levels of a coal power station or for trying to raise the national minimum wage. Worryingly, the threat of being sued for such large amounts can deter governments from legislating in the interests of human rights, the environment and gender equality. 

Help us change the system

The current system reinforces a huge asymmetry of power between people, the planet and corporations. It is also dangerously exacerbating economic, social and gender inequalities by encouraging the expansion of the unregulated model of global value chains. 

Today’s international trade system is unjust, does not encourage responsible business, and needs to be changed urgently through a broad set of reforms: including new rules to hold corporations accountable for human rights violations and adverse impacts on the environment, as well as an end to their special privileges.

And there is huge momentum to do that now! At the international level, there are negotiations under way in the UN to adopt an international binding treaty, which will define the obligations of corporations worldwide and ensure access to justice for victims of corporate abuses. Several European countries are also in the process of adopting or considering laws defining the duties of transnational corporations throughout their supply chains. 

If designed in a gender-just waythese rules could make a huge difference for the thousands of women everywhere who have faced rights abuses by big businessand are fighting for their rights. 

Join us now in this major European campaign on Rights for people, rules for corporations, where we call on EU countries to adopt such rules at the national, European and UN level and to end unfair privileges for corporations and investors through trade and investment deals.