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Germany lags behind: Implementing the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights

In December 2016, the German government released the "National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights" (NAP). It marks a first step towards the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but does not go far enough. 

The Government's National Action Plan is insufficient

With the NAP, the German government continues to suggest voluntary measures for businesses instead of enshrining them in law. It merely expresses the clear expectation that all companies will implement processes to fulfil their human rights due diligence. According to the NAP, by 2020 at least 50 percent of all businesses located in Germany with over 500 employees should have integrated human rights due diligence into their business processes. If this doesn't happen, the Government's coalition agreement stipulates "national legal action" and "engagement in the introduction of EU-wide regulations".

The Government is currently monitoring the 50 percent set quota until 2020. However, the monitoring results will depend greatly on the methodology used. According to a statement by civil society organisations  and unions, the methodology used by the Government is neither credible, independent, nor scientifically sound. It will therefore lack sufficient, robust results to decide if businesses effectively implement their human rights due diligence. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs had advocated for a research method which was criticized for being ambiguous. 

The UN Social Committee criticizes Germany

In its concluding report from October 2018, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticises Germany for applying only voluntary measures for the implementation of human rights due diligence in businesses. In addition, it criticises the 50 percent target set in the government's NAP, as a large proportion of businesses would still be able to violate their human rights due diligence. The committee recommends that Germany should ensure by law that companies respect human rights in their international activities and can be held liable for violations.

Dismissal of complaint against KiK highlights need for action

The need for legal regulations in Germany can also be demonstrated by the KiK case brought before the Regional Court of Dortmund. On 10 January 2019 the court dismissed the civil action by Pakistani relatives and survivors of a fire at a factory supplying the German textile company KiK. The reason for the dismissal was a statute of limitations according to Pakistani law – despite the fact that KiK had signed a waiver of limitations. According to the plaintiffs, KiK, as the main buyer of the clothes produced, shared responsibility for safe labour conditions at its supplier Ali Enterprises. 258 people lost their lives in the fire of September 2012. The dismissal of their action against KiK demonstrates the lack of regulations in Germany to hold German businesses to account over breaches of labour and human rights abroad.

Germany lags behind: The legal situation in other countries

Example: France

Other countries are ahead of Germany, having passed laws already or are in the process of passing such regulations. The most prominent example is France: at the beginning of last year, the French Parliament passed a law requiring large French companies to identify and prevent ecological and human rights risks of their business – this also applies to subsidiaries and global supply chains. Subject companies must establish a procedure to regularly examine subsidiaries and suppliers. In cooperation with unions, companies must also develop a warning system to accept complaints. When problems are identified, the company must take appropriate measures and test their effectiveness. If a company neglects these duties, any person with a justifiable interest can request a court order to compel the company to perform its duty. Neglect of due diligence can in certain circumstances lead to legal liability. If affected persons sue because of, for example, a factory accident, a court must decide if the company has met all statutorily required due diligence measures. If the company has not and damages result, the company is liable. The French legislation is at present the widest-reaching legislation, other countries, however, also increasingly hold companies to their responsibilities.

Other countries are also ahead in terms of corporate responsibility

The UK introduced the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. The law tackles modern forms of slavery and requires large companies to report such risks across their entire supply chain and to demonstrate the actions taken to assess and manage those risks. A similar law has been in place in California for some years. The Dutch parliament is currently debating a legislative initiative to counter child labour in supply chains. Switzerland and Australia are also preparing similar regulation.

The German government must act!

Taking into account the criticism of the NAP and the planned NAP monitoring, we call upon the German government to issue an act within the current legislative period that will define mandatory human rights due diligence for German businesses along their entire supply chains. Additionally, the government should actively engage in a binding treaty on business and human rights for the UN

The content of this web site is the exclusive responsibility of Forum Fairer Handel e.V., the positions presented do not reflect the attitude of the European Union, ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL gGmbH and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

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Foto Maja Volland
Maja Volland
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