France wants to be at the forefront of efforts to regulate multinationals’ responsibility towards workers in developing countries, but is having difficulty enforcing its own law on duty of care, according to a report published on 21 February. EURACTIV France reports.
The French law on duty of care by parent and contracting companies, adopted in 2017, was seen as a major step forward in the field of human and worker’s rights.
Dubbed the ‘Rana Plaza’ law after the name of a building in Bangladesh which collapsed in 2013, claiming the lives of more than 1,000 workers in the garment industry, the French piece of legislation stipulated that multinationals can be held accountable for their sub-contractor’s compliance with human rights in developing countries.
It was the first of its kind in the world, French MPs said at the time, patting themselves on the back.
In practical terms, the law requires French businesses with more than 5,000 employees to identify and prevent human rights and environmental violations from their or their sub-contractors’ operations abroad in monitoring plans.
But, two years after this pioneering law came into force, it has had poor results. French multinationals have not responded to the exercise well enough, according to an assessment by a group of NGOs including ActionAid, Amnesty International, the collective Éthique sur l’étiquette, Friends of the Earth, CCFD-Terre solidaire and Sherpa.
In addition, the French government has taken little action to enforce compliance. This year is the first when legal action can be taken against those multinationals that are lagging behind.
There could be around 300 businesses established in France affected by the legislation, the report said. But “no complete list of businesses subject to the law has been published.”
Moreover, some companies affected by the law still have not published monitoring plans. For example, this is the case of the agri-food company Lactalis, Crédit agricole and textile companies, such as Zara and H&M, despite these being involved in the Rana Plaza tragedy.
In its assessment of the textile sector, the report’s authors criticised the fact that no clothing brand, with the exception of Decathlon, has published a monitoring plan.
The NGOs’ broad analysis noted major shortcomings in the 80 monitoring plans published between March and December 2018.
“Each business applied the law with differing levels of requirement, with most of the plans still focussed on risks to the companies, and not to third parties or the environment,” the report stated.
For instance, in nuclear fuel cycle company Orano’s monitoring plan, the risks indicated were not those associated with the duty of care principle but those which may “have an impact on employee safety, the financial results of a business unit or the group, as well as its brand image.” in addition, the companies consulted insurance companies in order to draw up their monitoring plans.
A further criticism in the report was that most of the plans did not specify the scope, notably with regard to suppliers and sub-contractors. There were also no details on high-risk projects or how to avoid such risks.
Most of the plans examined by the NGOs only amounted to a few pages and were generally incorporated into the chapter on social and environmental responsibility in companies’ reference documentation.
No progress at European level
While the French legislation is showing its limitations, there has been even less progress at international and European level. The negotiation of a legally binding international treaty on human rights, which has been under discussion at the UN for several years, has still not been concluded, notably due to little support from the European Union.
The proposed agreement was not adopted during the latest negotiating session in Geneva. “We are continuing negotiations to develop a treaty which compels multinationals to respect human rights and the environment,” said a European Commission spokesperson.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Frédéric Simon]