Business and Human Rights

Serena Lillywhite If I were federal Attorney-General I would ensure corporate responsibility, and in particular business and human rights, was firmly on the agenda of both the Australian government and Australian multinational enterprises.

Australia is being re-positioned as an effective global citizen through middle power diplomacy and renewed engagement to ensure regional security and economic and social prosperity.  To achieve this I would exert influence over non-state actors, such as the private sector, to ensure human rights principles are upheld when engaged in global trade, sourcing and investment.  This is particularly important when operating in developing and emerging economies, and conflict zones with potentially weak regulatory environments and vulnerable workers and communities.

The current corporate responsibility regulatory landscape is complex —international and national law, treaties and conventions, and a plethora of voluntary mechanisms and self regulation.  Voluntary mechanisms alone, such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, do not guarantee enterprises will uphold fair and decent employment practices and respect for human rights.

As AG I would collaborate with other government departments, NGOs, human rights experts and business to develop and monitor regulatory frameworks that ensure responsible business conduct.

I would establish a National Corporate Responsibility Commission that reports to parliament.  Representatives would be drawn from government, business and civil society.  The terms of reference would be developed in response to extensive multi-stakeholder consultation.  The mandate and report by Professor John Ruggie, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights, would inform the work of both the Commission, and the government’s response to business and human rights.

As AG, I would swiftly introduce mandatory corporate responsibility reporting for Australian transnational enterprises against sustainable business targets.  Companies would be required to report annually under a ‘comply or explain’ system on the human rights, ethical, social and environmental impact of their operations.  This would include their operations in developing and emerging economies.  The adopted reporting framework would be based on the Global Reporting Initiative.  Specifically, companies would be required to:

  • disclose their top five sustainability risks;
  • disclose all human rights issues;
  • identify strategies to mitigate the negative impact of their operations;
  • identify impacts on women, children and minority groups;
  • map and disclose their supply chains, sub-contactors, subsidiaries and licensing agents;
  • outline independent auditing mechanisms; and
  • demonstrate meaningful stakeholder dialogue.

These reports would be made public through the ASX and ASIC.  Corporate failure to meet international best practice targets would result in taxation penalties, fines and remedies for those adversely affected.  This income would be redirected to the Australian aid budget to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

The Australian government is a signatory to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.  I would ensure we meet our responsibilities to promote the Guidelines to multinational enterprises and effectively respond to cases raised under the complaint mechanism.  This would be achieved by a restructure of the National Contact Point (NCP).  I would actively liaise with Treasury to ensure the NCP becomes a multi-partite structure, in line with recommendations by OECD Watch and their Model National Contact Point.  I would establish a Corporate Responsibility Ombudsman.  One function would be to act as a mechanism of appeal for cases rejected by the NCP.

I would review the regulatory framework and contractual arrangements of public private partnerships (PPPs) to ensure human rights standards and laws are upheld.  In particular, I would monitor PPPs involved in the day-to-day management and operation of prisons and detention centres to ensure, for example, the human rights of prisoners with a disability and asylum seekers are respected, and practices such as mandatory and arbitrary detention cease.  I would follow up on the OECD Guidelines case against GSL (in their management of Australia’s detention centres) to ensure commitments made have been implemented.

I would actively participate in, and resource, the development of business and human rights training.  This would include training for CEOs, peak industry bodies and government departments.  The program would include regional human rights capacity building for business, civil society and public officials.

I would work closely with the Ministers for Immigration, and Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure the proposed seasonal migrant labour scheme with Pacific island countries is developed within a rights-based framework.  This would include fair and decent working conditions and respect for human rights by the private sector throughout the supply chain.

I would ensure Australia swiftly ratified the international instruments that protect the rights of migrant workers, namely:

  • ·         UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families;
  • ·         ILO Migration for Employment Convention 1949 (Revised) (No 97); and
  • ·         ILO Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention 1975 (No 143). 

I would review all trade agreements to ensure the principles of responsible business conduct and protection of human rights are included.

I would review government procurement policy and introduce procurement legislation similar to that of the UK.  Initially I would focus on the procurement of uniforms for government employees, insisting they be manufactured under either NoSweat Shop accredited Australian manufacturers, or sourced through international suppliers with an ethical sourcing strategy and independent monitoring.

In recognition of those enterprises that had incorporated human rights thinking into their business operations, I would introduce an annual Australian Business and Human Rights Award.

Serena Lillywhite is Manager, Sustainable Business at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and regularly advises the OECD on corporate responsibility.  She was involved in the OECD Guidelines case against GSL for failing to uphold human rights principles in the management and operation of Australia’s immigration detention centres.