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Human rights: the foundation on which our business is built


Authored by Marcela Manubens

In 2015 we launched our inaugural human rights report. For Human Rights Day 2017, we’re sharing our progress so far. Unilever’s Marcela Manubens explains four ways we’ve made a difference in our supply chains.

Happy workers

About the author

Marcela Manubens

Marcela Manubens

Unilever VP, Integrated Social Sustainability

Marcela Manubens leads Unilever’s human rights and social sustainability
agendas, including the ‘Enhancing Livelihoods’ ambitions of our Sustainable
Living Plan which encompasses the implementation of UN Guiding Principles on
Business and Human Rights.

In a recent conversation about misconceptions about ‘equality’ my daughter rightly noted: “Same is not equality. We are all different individuals but we are equal. We have different points of view, distinctive voices. We have equal rights.”

That we have these equal rights is thanks to a document that was signed almost 70 years ago. It is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has become the most translated document in the world.

Drafted by people with different cultural backgrounds, it recognises that: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

It’s something we should celebrate and fight to preserve not just on Human Rights Day, but every day.

Protecting human rights is a shared responsibility

We cannot achieve sustained development and sustainable, responsible growth without the protection, respect and promotion of human rights and an effective mechanism to quickly tackle issues as they arise.

And everyone – states, the business community and civil society – must take into account these fundamental rights in all our decision-making every day.

For business, these universal principles must be part of our DNA and at the core of strategy.

For Human Rights Day 2017, we’ve launched a progress report (PDF 9.45 MB) on our USLP ambition to embed human rights into our operations globally, a follow up report to our 2015 inaugural human rights report. This progress report addresses our salient human rights issues, and provides an update on how we see our approach developing in the future.

One of our clear priorities is eradicating forced labour from global supply chains – including our own.

A focus on forced labour and modern slavery

Despite the declaration marking the prohibition of slavery since 1948, the UN International Labour Organization estimates that at any given time in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people were in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriage. This powerful video by the Guardian highlights the prevalence of this issue.

We acknowledge the risk of forced labour occurring in global supply chains. That is the reason we are working together with industry peers and multi stakeholders to bring about systemic change. We know that there is more we can do to strengthen our own process and oversight in this area.

We know that auditing our suppliers helps to bring accountability and deliver credibility to the supply chain by providing a verification point. And that it also helps us to understand the overall direction of improvement.

And we know that audits are not an end in themselves, providing only a snapshot in time, and work best as part of a broader approach to awareness, engagement, collaboration and remedy.

We are moving towards an approach that more closely integrates social sustainability and accountability. This includes identifying and addressing existing and emerging issues through impact assessments, capacity building and stronger engagement with workers.

Marcela Manubens with the United nations' sustainable development goals behind
When it comes to eradication of forced labour, there is no time to waste. We are in a unique position to bring solutions and action. Marcela Manubens

We recognise the risk in our own supply chains – particularly in the area of indirect suppliers such as factory workers supplied through agencies. To combat this we have put frameworks and practical training in place for our suppliers. Here are four ways we’re continuing to make a difference.

1. We’ve made our zero-tolerance position loud and clear

We’ve included guidelines on preventing human trafficking in our policy framework, and set out the steps we have taken to detect, respond and prevent forced labour and human trafficking within our business and throughout our supply chain in our UK Modern Slavery Act statement (PDF 2.12 MB).

2. We’re rolling out internal training to raise employee awareness

In Q3 2017 we ran a series of internal webinars on forced labour. The first series helped employees recognise forced labour, understand how and where workers are vulnerable to it and what to do if it is identified. The second series focused on temporary and migrant labour, including the use of ethical recruitment agencies and the abolition of worker fees.

3. We’ve trained around 1,000 suppliers on eradicating forced labour

Our first virtual supplier event in Turkey in 2016 focused on migrant labour; in 2017 we co-sponsored a Responsible Sourcing Supplier Event with peer companies in Dubai. Sanjiv Kakkar, EVP NAMET RUB, emphasised the critical role our suppliers play and the opportunity the event presented to share best practice on the eradication of forced labour. Further supplier training took place this year in India, Thailand and Malaysia, where Anne-Marieke de Haan, General Manager, Unilever Malaysia, gave the opening address.

4. We’re working with others to promote responsible recruitment changes

We were one of five founding companies in the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment which focuses on promoting ethical recruitment – the ‘employer pays’ principle, specifying that no workers should pay for a job – and combating the exploitation of migrant workers. Working together with peer companies at the Consumer Goods Forum, we set up the Three Priority Industry Principles which state that:

  • Every worker should have freedom of movement. The ability of workers to move freely should not be inhibited by their employer.
  • No workers should pay for a job. Fees and costs associated with recruitment and employment should be paid by the employer.
  • No worker should be indebted or coerced to work. Workers should work freely, aware of terms and conditions of their work and be paid regularly as agreed.

Collaboration is the key to creating change

Human rights violations are often intimately bound up with poverty, wage inequalities and other social issues that cannot be viewed in isolation. They must be understood and addressed as part of the overall system because they are interlinked.

Business must work collaboratively to implement best preventative measures and remain vigilant to tackle root causes. Because when it comes to eradication of forced labour, there is no time to waste. We are in a unique position to bring solutions and action.

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