Government to pressure British firms on human rights overseas

Thumb_laura-kuenssberg
A typical worker makes the equivalent of forty basic t-shirts a day. Photo: ITV News

We've seen this week how British firms are trying to manage the dilemma of working in countries with very cheap labour and keeping standards high.

There is pressure from consumers and also now, it seems, increasing pressure from the government.

In the next few months we've been told that the government is going to introduce a policy to require companies to do more to respect human rights whichever country they work in.

A typical worker makes the equivalent of forty basic t-shirts a day. Credit: ITV News

The Foreign Office has told ITV News:

The Government expects UK businesses to operate at all times in a way respectful of human rights whether in Britain or overseas.

Following the UN Human Rights Council‘s June 2011 endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, in which the UK played an important role, the Government is fully committed to implementing those principles as part of a wider strategy on business and human rights.

It is not yet clear exactly what this will mean for UK companies, and if it were to translate into new rules and regulations there could be concern from the business community.

Responding to pressure from their customers is one thing, pressure from politicians is another. But it seems the government is intent on applying pressure.

A Government probe faults the construction materials and code violations for the Bangladesh building collapse. Credit: Reuters

In a country like Bangladesh where British firms operate there is also money being spent on trying to improve the country.

Although it is a source for cheap clothes for many millions of British consumers, it is also somewhere where their taxes end up too.

A simple garment it takes about 16 minutes to make. Credit: ITV News

Over the next four years the Department for International Development will spend nearly a billion pounds in Bangladesh. And a lot of that effort is focused on trying to improve the garment trade.

Their spokesman here, Sarah Cooke, told me:

DFID recognises the economic and social importance of the readymade garment industry to Bangladesh.

It accounts for two thirds of its exports, worth over £10bn, and it supports up to four million jobs.

Eighty per cent of garment factory workers are women, which is having a significant social impact, bringing job opportunities to many for the first time. We maintain regular contact with UK and international companies in Bangladesh, providing advice and listening to how we can work most effectively with the industry and the Bangladeshi authorities to drive up standards.

We have also been raising awareness of existing laws among garment workers and helping them to defend their rights.

No one should be under any illusions about the scale of the challenge though. There is still much more to be done and everyone involved needs to play their part.