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In the course of globalisation, manufacturers of clothing and sports items have increasingly outsourced their manufacturing to countries in the Global South. Such countries vie to attract foreign investors in the hope of an economic upturn, even at the expense of a reduction in human rights standards. As a result, companies can have goods made at extremely low manufacturing and wage costs. Home states typically do not set any requirements for the protection of human rights with respect to the activities and business relations of their companies abroad.

In the textile industry, which is highly international, there are severe gaps in human rights protection as a result. The wages of seamstresses in Bangladesh and other countries are below the subsistence level; child labour is widespread and the right to unionisation is severely limited. Overtime and discrimination against women in particular are rife; health protection and occupational safety are mostly lacking completely. That results, for instance, in the collapse of factories or factory fires, as witnessed recently in Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.

There are now numerous initiatives that are pushing for improved working conditions in the textile industry. Such alliances may provide important momentum. However, they are voluntary in nature and violations of their standards mostly go without consequence.

Consistent implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is vital

The competition for markets and investors and the focus on short-term competitive advantages must not lead to violation of human rights in the supply chains of the textile industry. That is why consistent implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (PDF, not barrier-free) is so important.

The principles set out the need for the home states and host states of companies to take measures – chiefly by putting appropriate laws in place – to prevent, uncover and penalise violations of human rights and ensure that those affected receive compensation. In addition to that state duty, all companies need to perform their own human rights due diligence. That corporate responsibility also applies along complex supply chains. In addition, both states and companies must ensure that those affected by violations of human rights have access to remedy and compensation.

In the scope of a research project, the German Institute for Human Rights is addressing the question of how National Human Rights Institutions in selected partner countries can be strengthened with respect to implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. It is also advising the Federal Government on its implementation of the Guiding Principles in Germany and on development cooperation.

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