Accountability for human and labour rights abuses is non-negotiable

Today, two private members’ bills were introduced in Canada’s House of Commons that, if passed, would help protect human and labour rights and the environment in Canadian companies’ global operations and supply chains.

While the Canadian government has thus far failed to address pervasive human and labour rights and environmental issues in Canadian companies’ global operations and supply chains, these two bills could help Canada ensure meaningful and effective corporate accountability:

  • Bill C-262, an Act respecting the corporate responsibility to prevent, address and remedy adverse impacts on human rights occurring in relation to business activities conducted abroad, would require companies to review all their business activities, identify actual and potential risks to human and labour rights and the environment, take steps to mitigate those risks, and ensure remedy for those harmed.
  • Bill C-263, an Act to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Responsible Business Conduct Abroad and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, would give the Office of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) the powers needed to do its job. As it stands now, CORE lacks the necessary powers to order documents and compel witness testimony under oath.

The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), of which MSN is a member, is calling for all-party support for these two bills. “What is needed is legislation that requires companies to change their behaviour or face significant consequences. These bills would do that,” said CNCA Policy Director, Emily Dwyer.

Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence legislation is needed now
For more than twenty years, companies’ voluntary codes of conduct and corporate social responsibility policies have consistently failed to effectively address ongoing abuses. Company-controlled social auditing programs have protected brand image and profit maximization, but have done little to protect workers.  It is time for Canada to take meaningful, legally-binding action.

Up until now, Canada has taken a back-seat approach, failing to establish rules requiring companies to respect human rights and the environment overseas and leaving companies to hide behind self-monitoring measures, which have done little, if anything, to curb corporate abuse. Voluntary mechanisms, check box social auditing, and self-reporting legislative approaches, such as the Modern Slavery Act, Bill S-216, which was tabled in the Senate in February 2020, are ineffective in preventing abuses against workers, and provide little to no access to remedy when harms do occur.

To date, several European countries, as well as Australia, have enacted some form of mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation, and in February 2022 the European Parliament released a directive on corporate sustainability due diligence. While the European directive is an important first step, it has been widely criticized as falling far short of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, applying only to large companies making over 150 million Euros, and missing the mark on key issues necessary to ensure meaningful accountability for corporate harms. For example, while companies will be obligated to provide a duty of care throughout their supply chains, they will be able to shift responsibility for harms to their suppliers, instead of taking a comprehensive approach to establish rules that would require companies to respect human rights and the environment overseas.

While other countries’ legislation has fallen short, Canada has an opportunity to get it right from the start with Bills C-262 and C-263.

What does mHREDD legislation do?
Effective mHREDD legislation ensures that companies of all sizes have a corporate duty to:

  • Prevent and avoid adverse human rights impacts in their supply chains and business relationships, such as subcontracted facilities and private security firms; and
  • Develop, implement and report on the steps taken to prevent or mitigate human rights abuses and environmental harms.

Such legislation would ensure that workers who experience abuses have access to justice and remedy and that companies’ HREDD obligations are enforced.