The ramifications of bonded and child labour, involving tens of millions of people around the world, is not a distant travesty which we view from afar. In fact it stretches to our own shores as multi-national companies are implicated through their supply chains.
Recently the Blood Bricks coalition identified workers in bonded labour who were said to have been working for Jai and Raj Group, a sub-contractor of Indian engineering and construction giant Larsen and Toubro (L&T) Ltd. In 2010, Scotland-based Howden Group entered into a multimillion-pound joint venture with L&T.
After identifying these workers we wrote to the Howden Group alerting the firm to the allegations of its partner, which have been passed to the Indian Government's Ministry of Labour. The response was completely inadequate as the Howden Group, despite being controlled by L&T, said that we should raise our complaints with L&T direct.
The Blood Bricks campaign did exactly this and the company denied the allegations of bonded labour stating that the company had the highest standards of labour welfare at all establishments and job sites, and was compliant with the Indian labour laws and acts.
The workers were said to have been lured to work by an advance of 1000 rupees (£10.26) and promised wages of 12,000 rupees (£123.08) a month to work on a construction site in Delhi. The allegations, if proved, are a serious breach of domestic and international law.
The legal case at the heart of the blood bricks campaign is a very simple one. There is a cost which society demands of companies who decide to incorporate their company in the United Kingdom. It is not a financial cost and it is something that every good business, to coin the phrase used by the UK Government in its recent, sadly fairly anaemic, attempt to address the issue, should be doing already. It is a matter of social responsibility and corporate morality.
Need for changes
There is therefore a need for changes that will prevent companies incorporated in the UK from hiding behind corporate structures or supply chains in relation to these terrible human rights breaches. Accordingly, the demand is for legislative change with teeth that will impose real sanctions on companies who either, through subsidiaries, joint ventures or supply chains, have a hand in the employment of workers under conditions which breach human rights.
If companies want to operate in the UK, then this must come at a price of proactively ensuring their supply chains are free from slavery. Even if they are UK companies operating around the world, they have a legal duty to proactively uphold the law.
The current law contained within the 2006 Companies Act only requires UK public limited companies to produce a report including social, community and human rights issues. This is a pale imitation of what is needed and, more importantly, the Act is being flouted because the language is not sufficiently clear in its terms, providing loopholes for private companies. The Government's recent paper "Good Business" and the amendments to the Human Slavery Bill do not go far enough.
There is the clear need for precise and unambiguous legislation that will end corporate complicity in human rights breaches across the world for any company that chooses to benefit from incorporation in the United Kingdom. In short, while the UK government seeks to embarrass our nation on the worldwide stage by being the only country to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Blood Bricks campaign is about reclaiming human rights and forcing UK incorporated companies to meet their obligations under the general principals of the Human Rights Law.
Andrew Brady is director of Union Solidarity International, a pan-national body which exists to further the cause of trade unions and oppose neoliberalism.