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Working with others on human rights

We believe we can better advance human rights by working with others on a local and global level.

Unilever factory

Supporting – and leading – collaborative action

We have a clear responsibility to address human rights issues in our value chain - and we’re taking action on them. But we know that the lasting, systemic changes needed to make a positive difference in many areas will not be achieved by one company acting alone: they can only come about through collaborative action at scale.

Other companies, labour and civil society organisations, NGOs, multinational initiatives – partnerships with these and many other organisations give us opportunities to increase the positive impact we can make. By drawing on the research, access, expertise and scale of our stakeholders and partners we can learn more, make better decisions and create more of a difference.

Key collaborations driving change

Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) Social Sustainability Committee: drives global collaboration between retailers and manufacturers in identifying and tackling key social sustainability issues such as the eradication of forced labour.

World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Future Council: the future of Human Rights: aims to better understand the potential impact of the fourth industrial revolution on human rights.

AIM-PROGRESS: promotes responsible sourcing practices and sustainable supply chains for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturers with common suppliers.

Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment: works towards a new business model with the help of expert organisations in the responsible recruitment of migrant workers.

For more details of these and other collaborations, see our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF | 10MB)


Supporting human rights defenders

We recognise increasing pressure and insecurity for human rights defenders, including trade unionists. We do not tolerate threats, intimidation, physical or legal attacks against human rights defenders in relation to our operations.

Collaborating to address forced labour and human trafficking

Collaborative action is essential to eradicating forced labour from global value chains, including ours. By working together, industry groups can identify and address issues and geographies of shared concern, and so enhance the efficiency of individual company initiatives.


Tackling endemic human rights issues


Rachel Cowburn-Walden

Rachel Cowburn-Walden, Global Director, Human Rights Stewardship, Integrated Social Sustainability.

“In my role - Human Rights Stewardship - I focus on endemic human rights issues such as forced labour, land rights and poor working conditions.

I know that these are most effectively addressed by working with and learning from others, including other businesses, industry organisations, governments, civil society and trade unions. That’s why it’s crucial we take an active part in collaborations to drive action, share best practice and report on progress. This strengthens the embedding of commitments.

I have seen how most progress can be made when everyone comes together with a shared vision and determination to make positive change. The size of our value chain means that we have much to do. I am both humbled and driven by the continuing challenge.”

As members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), and in particular its Social Sustainability Committee, we support its resolution to fight forced labour issues throughout global supply chains and its ‘Priority Industry Principles’ to prioritise action:

  • every worker should have freedom of movement
  • no worker should pay for a job, and
  • no worker should be indebted or coerced to work.

We work on the eradication of forced labour through a number of other partnerships too. For example, in 2016 we were one of five companies to form the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, which is facilitated by the Institute for Human Rights and Business. The Leadership Group 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. For more details, see our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF | 10MB).


Working with suppliers to eradicate forced labour


Sanjiv Kakkar

Sanjiv Kakkar is Executive Vice President for our North Africa, Middle East, Turkey, Russia and Belarus region, based in Dubai.

“Forced labour is prevalent in all regions of the world. Issues such as the responsible recruitment and management of migrant labour are not easy to address and resolve. That’s why we believe so strongly in an approach of partnership where we can work together and advance best preventative practices to create positive change.

In March 2017, we co-sponsored a Responsible Sourcing Supplier Event in Dubai with peer companies, organised by AIM-PROGRESS. It gave me the opportunity to emphasise the critical role suppliers play – and the event included workshops focusing on migrant workers, recruitment and passport retention.

Unilever also took part in similar supplier training events in India, Thailand and Malaysia during 2017. It’s a good way to share learning on how we can all take action to combat abusive practices.”

Supporting the UN Global Compact

We are a founding signatory to the UN Global Compact (UNGC). We pledged to uphold its commitments in relation to human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption. We’re also members of UNGC’s Human Rights Working Group, and our CEO, Paul Polman, is a member of UNGC’s Board.

In 2013, we endorsed the Women’s Empowerment Principles, a collaboration between UNGC and UN Women. We are implementing these principles across our business, as well as taking steps to increase women’s rights and economic inclusion in our supply chain. Read more about how we’re increasing Opportunities for women.

For more information on the UN Global Compact, including our annual Communication on Progress, see our UNGC index page.

Engaging on labour rights

Labour rights, including the right to freedom of association, are an integral part of human rights.

Freedom of association

Freedom of association is one of our eight salient human rights issues. And our Code of Business Principles, through its Respect, Dignity and Fair Treatment Policy, makes clear that all Unilever companies must:

“Respect employees’ rights to join or not to join a legally recognised trade union, or any other body representing their collective interests, and establish constructive dialogue and bargain in good faith with trade unions or representative bodies on employment conditions, labour management relations and matters of mutual concern, to the extent practicable taking national laws into consideration.”

We engage in a wide range of consultation with our stakeholders on labour rights, including with the OECD, ILO, UN Global Compact, the IUF (International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations) and IndustriALL.

We consider dialogue with trade unions to be very important and we continue to engage with them and learn from best practices. In those countries where the right to freedom of association is restricted, we’re exploring how we can develop dialogue through joint working groups.

We have formal and informal consultations with unions. Formal consultations are in addition to the day-to-day interactions our leadership teams have with union representatives in the factories, and regional and global consultations we have with trade union executives.

We run a biannual consultation forum with the IUF and IndustriALL. This provides a face-to-face engagement between our senior industrial relations leaders and IUF leadership. Via its affiliates, the IUF represents over 10 million workers, including thousands of our employees.

These discussions allow us to communicate directly with our trade union partners and set the tone for how we expect local management teams to interact with local trade unions. Worker representatives discuss local and global rights issues which then can be addressed by our senior team. These discussions also give us a platform to communicate our own business context, and new policies and programmes that impact workers. We discuss rights issues in our own operations, in joint ventures, and involving our suppliers. We also focus on our key commodities such as palm oil and tea, and particularly on working conditions for women in those sectors.

This enables us to identify any emerging issues at an early stage and work together on human rights concerns. For example, in 2017, following a joint commitment signed by Unilever, IUF and IndustriALL, the IUF produced a booklet called ‘No Place for Sexual Harassment at Unilever’. More information about our work with trade unions, including our working group with the IUF on Sustainable Employment, is on pages 38-40 of our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF | 10MB).

Today, around 75% of our blue-collar workers are covered by an independent trade union or collective bargaining agreement.

Suppliers & freedom of association

Our approach to freedom of association is carried through to our suppliers via our Responsible Sourcing Policy: one of its fundamental principles (8) is that all workers are free to exercise their right to form and/or join a trade union of their choice. Our Responsible Business Partner Policy for our customers and distributors also recognises this right.

See Advancing human rights with our suppliers & business partners

Working with Oxfam on labour rights

In 2016, Oxfam published ‘Labour Rights in Vietnam – Unilever’s Progress and Systemic Challenges’. This was a follow-up to their initial 2013 report on a two-year research project, ‘Labour Rights in Unilever’s Supply Chain’, designed to learn how we could best operationalise the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Oxfam’s progress update reported considerable improvements against the original report’s recommendations in the areas of supporting workers’ livelihoods, providing human rights training, implementing more ways in which workers can raise areas of concern, and working more closely with suppliers and partners to ensure standards are met. There had been progress in Unilever’s own factory, for example in the areas of wages and direct employment. There is still more work to do such as increasing the opportunities for female factory workers and continuing to ensure that our engagement with suppliers supports both progress on human rights and the business case for responsible sourcing.

Open, frank dialogue and understanding of the challenges and opportunities, particularly at the local level, have been a key part of this work, with learnings on both sides.

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