The UN Guiding Principles On Business and Human Rights – A Framework for Understanding and Action

This article on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights was written by Neill Wilkins, Migration Programme Manager for the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and was originally published by The Trafficking Research Project. Neill is manager of the Staff Wanted Initiative. He also helped oversee the development of the Dhaka Principles for Migration With Dignity – a set of human rights based principles that offer a clear framework for understanding the challenges businesses face regarding the recruitment and employment of migrant workers worldwide.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – developed by United Nations Special Representative Professor John Ruggie – is the most authoritative framework for business in ensuring human rights are respected within their operations around the world. The Guiding Principles, endorsed unanimously by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, are the result of a six-year multi-stakeholder process that included strong backing by companies and civil society. What is now needed is to apply the Principles and use them to understand and overcome human rights challenges faced by business in different sectors and operating in different contexts around the world. 

The Staff Wanted Initiative (SWI), funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is a joint project between Anti-Slavery International and the Institute for Human Rights and Business, which seeks to raise awareness of human rights and the Guiding Principles within the UK hotel industry. It focuses on the steps needed to combat the exploitation of vulnerable workers, trafficking and forced labour. It provides a useful example of how the Guiding Principles can be used in understanding an issue of concern within a particular business context. It also offers a clear framework for measures to prevent it.

Despite the efforts of some in the industry, exploitation still occurs in UK hotel operations both big and small. Mistreatment of workers, particularly agency workers (staff supplied and often managed by recruitment / employment agencies), on whom the industry relies so heavily, can take many forms including excessive working hours, being required to be constantly available for work, piece-work rates that deny the minimum wage, such as a fixed rate per room cleaned, withholding of wages and excessive deductions for services, uniforms, food, transport and accommodation, as well as debt bondage and outright forced labour. Exploitation of migrant workers, whose lack of awareness of their employment rights can make them particularly vulnerable, is an ongoing problem requiring joint action on the part of governments, industry, trade unions and wider civil society.

The UN Guiding Principles affirm the state duty to protect all workers whatever their employment situation or industry. The effective regulation of employment agencies supplying workers to the hospitality sector (as with many industry sectors in the UK which are not included within the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority) is, however, patchy and labour laws and employment regulations are often poorly enforced. As well as allowing exploitation of workers, this results in law-abiding, conscientious staffing agencies and hotels using their services being undercut by rogue operators. The issue is not absence of law. Legal requirements are in place; the problem is lack of effective enforcement resulting in a situation where rights exist on paper only.

The SWI has sought to engage policymakers and those responsible for regulating the industry with the specific challenges facing agency staff and other hotel workers. Particular highlights of this advocacy have included:

  • Early Day Motion 276 – Preventing the exploitation of staff in UK Hotels. A backbench motion (a parliamentary procedure used by members of the UK Parliament to draw attention to issues of concern) expressing support for SWI, tabled by John Cryer MP, attracted support from 52 Members of Parliament (MPs). This was followed by a related parliamentary event to raise awareness of the initiative attended by a large number of NGOs and Civil Society Organisations connected with the industry.
  • A Home Office sponsored roundtable with the industry encouraged further dialogue and a commitment to addressing the plight of vulnerable workers.
  • The Metropolitan Police Human Exploitation Team has endorsed the SWI and have been strong advocates both with their own industry contacts and politically. The SWI now features on the National Police Knowledge Database used by all police forces in the UK.
  • Glasgow will host the 2014 Commonwealth Games and work is already beginning to engage with the Scottish Parliament and others in Scotland on how SWI could help prevent abuse of worker rights in the lead up to the Games and beyond.

The UN Guiding Principles also make clear that all businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, independent of government obligations. Unfortunately, most in the hotel industry have failed to engage meaningfully with any human rights or sustainability agenda beyond environmental best practice. All hotels, whatever their size, have a responsibility to respect the human rights of staff working on their premises, whether directly employed or supplied by agencies. UK law is clear and wilful blindness to exploitation is not an option. As part of efforts to engage with the industry and raise awareness of an often hidden issue, the SWI has taken a number of practical actions including:

  • Developing The SEE Formula: Scrutinise, Engage and Ensure. This provides hotels with clear information and guidelines to better understand their relationships with their workforce and the agencies that supply them to ensure that they are not complicit in abuse and to protect workers from exploitation.
  • A SEE Formula leaflet was sent to all 1500 hotels in the Greater London area in advance of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
  • A mini website was established to provide further information and useful links for both business and others.
  • The SWI was a key feature in advocacy work undertaken by the Interfaith Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) as part of their Celebration without Exploitation Programme around the Olympics. A letter from ICCR to all major hotel chains explicitly called for engagement with SWI.
  • Collaboration with the International Tourism Partnership aims to foster dialogue with many of the hotel chains as members to encourage industry engagement with the issue. One major hotel chain has begun to review their operating procedures in light of The SEE formula.

Work is planned up until 2014; in the next phase of the SWI we hope to build on this programme and continue to engage constructively with both policymakers and business. We are also keen to ensure a greater voice for hotel workers themselves both directly and through the organisations and groups that might represent them. This will include diaspora and national associations, faith groups and other specific groupings. A series of regional roundtables is planned to catalyse and facilitate these interactions. We also hope to undertake a programme of research to better map and understand key challenges for these hotel workers. In this way, the initiative will contribute to a greater understanding of the situation facing workers and increase hotel staff’s knowledge of their rights, enabling more workers to assert their rights and seek redress when those rights are abused.

The issues facing workers in the UK hotel industry are not unique; exploitation and abuse can be found across all business sectors and throughout the world. Engagement by many different actors is needed to overcome and prevent such abuse. The UN Guiding Principles provide the international framework for undertaking practical engagement through projects like the SWI.