Key Responsibilities of International Apparel Brands
While the Cambodian government has the primary responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights under international human rights law, businesses, including international apparel brands, also have human rights responsibilities.
The basic principle that businesses have a responsibility to respect worker rights has acquired widespread international recognition. The “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework, articulated most notably in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, reflect the expectation that businesses should respect human rights, avoid complicity in abuses, and adequately remedy them when they occur. The Guiding Principles urge businesses to exercise due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for the impact of their activities on human rights.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) sets out norms for responsible social behavior by multinational firms, incorporating the concept of due diligence and the content of International Labour Organization (ILO) core labor standards. The OECD guidelines call on enterprises to respect human rights, “avoid infringing on the human rights,” and address adverse human rights impacts of their activities. This includes conducting “human rights due diligence” and working to remedy any negative fallout they have caused or contributed to.
To meet their responsibility to respect human rights, businesses should have policies and processes appropriate to their size and circumstances.
Three key human rights responsibilities of brands are discussed below.
International apparel buyers should avoid contributing to adverse human rights impacts either through acts or omissions. When they do not periodically disclose and update their supplier and subcontractor lists, along with estimates of the volume of garments sourced at each supplier, it is more difficult to identify and remedy labor rights abuses in their supply chain. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that businesses should “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts” that are “directly linked to their operations, products or services.” Such business relationships include “entities in its value chain.”
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises state that businesses should disclose “material information… whose omission or misstatement could influence the economic decisions taken by users of information.” The guidelines note that such disclosure may also cover information about their subcontractors and suppliers or joint venture partners.
International apparel companies (brands and retailers) should carry out human rights due diligence. Such due diligence should identify potential adverse human rights impacts and ways to prevent them. Human rights due diligence activity should be ongoing and not a one-time survey.
The responsibility to conduct due diligence in the garment sector is twofold. Under the Guiding Principles, where businesses have large value supply chains and it is unreasonably burdensome to conduct due diligence across them all, businesses should “identify general areas where the risk of adverse human rights impacts is most significant, whether due to certain suppliers’ or clients’ operating context, the particular operations, products or services involved, or other relevant considerations, and prioritize these for human rights due diligence.”
In the Cambodian context, subcontracting may contribute to worker exploitation and subcontractor factories should be included in the purview of regular and ongoing due diligence by international apparel brands. Due diligence should also include an assessment of the human rights risks posed by potential unauthorized subcontracting, as well as any potential harm to workers that might follow from company efforts to address unauthorized subcontract arrangements when they are discovered.
Apparel brands should also periodically and regularly review their purchasing and pricing practices to analyze how they influence labor conditions in sourcing factories.
Remediation in Supplier and Subcontractor Factories
International apparel brands have a responsibility to ensure decent working conditions in supplier and subcontractor factories. They have a responsibility to prevent and mitigate adverse impacts in business relationships “even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” The Guiding Principles discuss the meaning of “complicity,” saying that it has both legal and non-legal meanings. Conducting appropriate due diligence to avoid involvement with human rights violations can limit legal claims. However, they “should not assume…that this will automatically and fully absolve them from liability for causing or contributing to human rights abuses.” So for example, brands should not seek to limit their human rights responsibilities simply by pointing to the distinction between unauthorized and authorized subcontracts and saying they have no responsibilities to the former.
In the Cambodian context, international apparel brands should support remediation for substandard worker conditions in subcontractor factories by reporting the factories to BFC and consider contributing towards remediation, including costs.
Human Rights Watch believes that, where feasible and appropriate, brands should give factories that are unauthorized or violate workers’ rights a reasonable opportunity to take remedial measures before severing business ties. When brands terminate contracts with factories because of unauthorized subcontracts, the workers who reported the problems in face loss of livelihood—an outcome brands should work to avoid.
In situations where abuses associated with unauthorized subcontracting are egregious or pervasive, or where the likelihood of remedy is remote, the severance of business relationships would be appropriate. In such cases, brands should take steps to provide some form of remediation to workers whose livelihoods are impacted as a result of that decision. The presence of unauthorized subcontracting in a brand’s supply chain may ultimately be a failure of the brand itself. The brand should consider helping workers transition out of employment that is eliminated because of corrective actions taken by the brand. Similarly, if brands temporarily halt production while remedial measures are underway, they should endeavor to help offset the financial harm caused to workers during this period.