Full report available at http://www.corporate-responsibility.org
The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
and The Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition
Media Briefing
The Reality of Rights
A new report reveals the reality for victims of human rights grievances by UK companies
Victims of human rights abuses are powerless against big business
UK companies operating in developing countries have a chequered history. Their record on labour rights, health and safety, discrimination and environmental harm would not be tolerated in the UK but they are having significant effects on the world’s poorest communities and workers.
A new report by the London School of Economics (LSE) and The Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition exposes how victims harmed by these abuses are being left powerless when pitted against large multinationals. The report supports the growing calls for the UK government to establish a Commission on Business, Human Rights and the Environment to improve accountability of UK companies and their behaviour overseas.
New research reveals insurmountable social, economic and political barriers
Taking the debate beyond previous studies that concentrate on the legal obstacles to righting corporate wrongs, The reality of rights report presents evidence that, even where human rights regulations are in place, victims face economic, political and social barriers when trying to reassert their human rights or receive compensation for damage they suffer.
The reality of rights finds the key barriers include:

  • Governments having to decide between the competing priorities of effective redress for victims and attracting international investment for job creation
  • Victims lacking information about the processes for seeking redress
  • Victims being politically marginalised based on issues such as race, class and gender
  • Victims being unable to afford legal advice as well as there being a lack of legal expertise to call on.
  • Victims not trusting the delays, uncertainty, weak remedies, and independence of the legal and self-regulatory system
  • The reality of rights media briefing (The LSE and The Core Coalition)
  • Governments lacking the capacity to enforce the laws they do have, and
  • Large multinational companies having the money and expertise to exploit and reinforce the barriers.

The human cost of barriers to remedies – five illustrative case studies
Through revealing case studies, this unique research lays bare the plight of those in developing countries trying to hold big business to account.
1. Kenyan flower workers
75 per cent of Kenya’s flower exports are eventually purchased by UK retailers, including dominant UK supermarkets. But a Kenyan working in one of the highest paying flower production firms might only receive wages ranging from around 80p a day to £1.25 – significantly below what is needed to meet that worker’s basic needs in the country. Lower pay is especially a problem for women, who may also suffer sexual harassment, be exposed to toxic chemical sprays in breach of health and safety regulations, and face restrictions in joining trade unions.
Despite Kenya having formal labour and health & safety directorates, a labour court, a national human rights agency and several other forums to raise these issues in, flower workers who suffer abuse find themselves unable to afford the fees, may not know their rights or have a poor understanding of the complex processes involved. Weakened trade unions in the country only exacerbate these problems and there are also reported cases where organisations seeking to support labour rights have been subjected to intimidation through legal and other tactics.
2. Garment workers in Bangladesh
An estimated 40% of people in Bangladesh live below the poverty line, yet the average wage of a worker in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry is ranked the lowest in the world. Half of these garment exports are destined for the European market including major UK retailers who buy tens of millions of pounds of garments every year.
This purchasing power lets retailers impose very demanding requirements for low prices and fast turn-around, often at the cost of workers’ rights. Over the past decade, at least 30 cases of factory collapses and fires have occurred, leaving hundreds of workers dead, and thousands injured. This may not be surprising with only four safety inspectors responsible for 11,665 premises.
The law in Bangladesh recognises conventions of the International Labour Organisation and major international human rights declarations and covenants. There also exist various administrative and legal avenues where workers can seek redress. The reality of rights report shows, however, the significant problems in asserting workers’ rights. Workers and their representatives seeking to defend their rights suffer harassment, intimidation, assault, illegal dismissal and even imprisonment.
The importance of the export sector for the Bangladeshi state appears to be prioritised over the protection of workers rights. Further, because of the structure of the supply chain, workers cannot use the legal avenues that are available to seek remedies directly from the UK companies who strongly influence the conditions the workers suffer.
3. Communities living near gas flaring in Nigeria
70% of Nigeria’s population live below the US$1 a day poverty line. 65% of Nigeria’s revenues come from oil, and despite a 1984 Nigerian law prohibiting the controversial practice of petroleum companies burning off gases that come mixed in with oil deposits, gas flaring still continues there. Gas flaring emits high levels of greenhouse gases, and contributes to pollution and acid rain. Gas flaring also harms the health and livelihoods of nearby communities causing respiratory problems and has also been linked to cancer. Shell makes a greater contribution to the gas flaring in Nigeria than any other company.
Even with several legal avenues available to communities who suffer from the effects of gas flaring, many barriers prevent Nigerians actually receiving remedies. Delays in the court process, the complexity of the legal procedure and even factors such as the geographical access to a court all discourage victims from taking legal action.
With the gas flaring corporations often being foreign subsidiaries, the technicalities of company law assists UK parent companies deny legal liability for the adverse consequences of the gas flaring. This is despite the fact that those parent companies receive profits from, and have influence or control over, their gas flaring subsidiaries.
In one case of gas flaring that did make it to the courts in 2005, a Nigerian Federal court found gas flaring by Shell to be a gross violation of constitutionally-guaranteed rights to life and dignity. Despite this, Shell continues gas flaring demonstrating the very real gap between the rights the Nigerian people have in theory, and the reality of asserting those rights.
4. Communities affected by Bauxite mining in India
There is a long tradition of UK companies being involved in the Indian mining sector. In the highly impoverished and indebted Indian state of Orissa, mining companies are currently involved in operations to extract bauxite. These operations have led to the displacement of tribal peoples which has not only affected their property rights and seen them moved to a crowded cement-house “rehabilitation colony”, but have also affected the tribes’ indigenous cultural, spiritual and identity rights connected with the land.
India has ratified many core international human rights conventions and has a national human rights commission. The country also has a broad range of protections available under national law which can be called on by those whose human rights are affected by mining activities.
The reality, however, is that the national human rights commission can only make non-binding recommendations. Further, an environmental clearance granted to a mining operation has to be appealed within 30 days – a timeframe that affected indigenous groups find difficult to comply with. NGOs that are not directly affected do not have the right to appeal.
Affected communities have also made appeals to a senior political figure in the region but found him to be closely aligned to the project and actively worked to pressure villagers to relocate. It is further claimed that political protests were impeded by local police who also refused to register reports of human rights abuses, which supports allegations that the police were working with company officials. The Indian media and Orissa opposition party have claimed the government has received kickbacks from mining companies in return for mining approvals. The government also has a conflict of interest when it comes to protecting rights as it owns a significant stake in the joint venture company for the bauxite project.
5. Georgian communities along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
A 1,770km pipeline was constructed between 2003-2005 to carry crude oil from near Baku in Azerbaijan, through Georgia to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Corporate interests in the pipeline were led by British Petroleum (BP) with support from the UK government’s export credits guarantee department. 750,000 people in 450 communities of the three countries were affected by the pipeline pathway, as were national parklands.
Despite the companies involved in building the pipeline being formally committed to respect applicable international human rights standards, there have been numerous claims of human rights breaches, including: non-compliant compulsory land acquisition processes and inadequate compensation; loss of livelihood through land degradation from construction work and the inability for people to access their land; as well as intimidation and violence against those protesting against the pipeline.
Theoretically, people affected by the pipeline could have made claims through various courts, a human rights ombudsman or even through various independent dispute mechanisms set up specifically by some of the project’s funders. The reality, however, was somewhat different.
As some individual claims on their own were relatively small, paying the high court fees or trying to take action against a UK parent company of a foreign subsidiary for the project would not have been feasible for many. Some of the legal claims that did manage to proceed are still unresolved, even after the pipeline has been completed. No claims were brought through the Georgian human rights ombudsman, with the Georgian government’s previous refusal to accept the recommendations of the ombudsman undermining the mechanism. The independent dispute mechanisms could only award non-binding remedies, and some companies simply refused to submit to the dispute resolution process.
A UK Commission for Business, Human Rights and the Environment
In her forward to the report, Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, highlights the problem of companies operating seamlessly in many countries, while the governance of the human rights and environmental impacts of their operations are far from seamless.
In order to address the realities of this gap in corporate responsibility, the Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition, reinforced by the arguments set out in The reality of rights report, proposes a UK Commission for Business, Human Rights and the Environment. This Commission would have the power to set appropriate corporate standards of conduct and help UK businesses meet human rights and environmental best practice in their overseas operations
For more information, please contact:
The Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition:
Hannah Ellis. +44 (0) 207 566 1601. +44 (0)7952 876 929 Hannah.ellis@corporate-responsibility.org. www.corporate-responsibility.org.
The London School of Economics and Political Science:
Sue Windebank + 44 (0) 20 7849 4624 S.Windebank@lse.ac.uk
Note: Please consult footnotes in The reality of rights: Barriers to accessing remedies when business operates beyond borders for sources for data cited.
The Reality of Rights: Barriers to accessing remedies when business operates beyond borders is available for download from www.corporate-responsibility.org