Last month the United Nations released a much-anticipated set of Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles seek to provide for the first time an authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse human rights (including labour rights) impacts linked to business activity.

Led by the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, Harvard Professor John Ruggie, the Guiding Principles are the product of six years research and extensive consultations involving governments, companies, business associations, civil society, affected individuals and groups, investors and others around the world.

The Guiding Principles outline how states and businesses should implement the UN’s ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, in order to better manage business and human rights challenges.  The Principles highlight what steps states should take to foster business respect for human rights; provide a blueprint for companies to know and show that they respect human rights, and reduce the risk of causing or contributing to human rights harm; and constitute a set of benchmarks for stakeholders to assess business respect for human rights.

Under this framework the corporate responsibility to respect human rights means acting with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others, and addressing harms that do occur. The term ‘responsibility’ rather than ‘duty’ is meant to indicate that respecting rights is currently not an obligation that international human rights law generally imposes directly on companies, although elements of it may be reflected in domestic laws.

In the Guiding Principles document, Professor Ruggie notes: “A company’s responsibility to respect applies across its business activities and through its relationships with third parties connected with those activities—such as business partners, entities in its value chain, and other non-state actors and state agents.  In addition, companies need to consider the country and local contexts for any particular challenges they may pose and how those might shape the human rights impacts of company activities and relationships.”


Since the second half of the twentieth century there has been growing concern regarding the potential negative impact of the activities of multi or transnational enterprises on human rights.  Many of these negative impacts have manifested in the area of labour rights.  These concerns have increased further after reviewing the practices of enterprises leading up to and during the global financial crisis.

In 2005, the UN Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council) created a Special Representative’s mandate in order to move beyond what was widely regarded as a long-standing and deeply divisive debate over human rights responsibilities of companies.  Professor Ruggie was appointed to the task of identifying and clarifying standards of corporate responsibility and accountability for transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights, to map out the role of the states in regulating these responsibilities, to develop materials and methodologies for assessing human rights impacts from business activities, and to compile a compendium of best practice guidelines.

The result, entitled ‘the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework’, was unanimously adopted by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in 2008.  The Framework comprises three core principles:

  • the state duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business
  • the corporate responsibility to respect human rights
  • greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial

Since the unanimous welcome of the Framework by the Human Rights Council in 2008, it has enjoyed extensive uptake by international and national governmental organisations, businesses, NGOs and other stakeholders.  In 2008, the Human Rights Council asked Professor Ruggie to operationalise the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework.  The Guiding Principles were developed in response to that request, and to take the next step of providing concrete guidance and recommendations to states and businesses, as well as benchmarks by which their performance can be assessed by other stakeholders.

At its next sitting in June 2011, the Human Rights Council will consider formal endorsement of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  These principles make it clear that business has a responsibility to respect human rights.  The minimum standards to be met are those contained in the United Nations’ Bill of Human Rights and the fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

The Guiding Principles are likely to be adopted and are already being utilised as a benchmark to assess business respect for human rights (including labour rights).  The website of the Special Representative provides a great amount of reference materials and case studies.


Assessing Labour Rights on a Local Level: the Australian Charter of Employment Rights

AIER’s Charter of Employment Rights is a simply expressed document that unravels the complexity of the regulation of workplace relations by defining and clearly articulating the rights of employers and workers in modern workplaces.  It draws upon international as well as uniquely Australian sources to identify the ten fundamental principles on which fair and balanced workplace laws and workplace relationships should be based, and to create a set of rights and obligations which all workplaces are encouraged to adopt and observe.

For organisations considering the labour rights dimension of human rights, the Charter of Employment Rights provides a blueprint.  The Charter (and its accompanying Standard) provide any business with the tools to ensure that its labour practices are in line with the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework and the Guiding Principles.  AIER can provide assistance to companies wishing to implement the Charter.