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#FinnishEUPresidency urged to toughen up human rights rules on business

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The tragic dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil, on 25 January, which saw at least 150 lives lost and thousands of livelihoods destroyed, highlights the human cost of weak regulations on business operating in the global south. Yet despite these dangers, most European companies’ approach to human and labour rights remains superficial, putting lives at risk and fuelling distrust of government and business, write Phil Bloomer and Sharan Burrow.

The Finnish EU Presidency this year presents an opportunity to change this. A group of civil society and trade union leaders issued an open letter this week calling on the Finnish government to step up the EU’s ambition in addressing the impact of business on human rights. The letter calls for a serious drive to require human rights due diligence from companies at an EU level – a cause gaining ground due to the weak implementation of transparency requirements on business.

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Today 50 of the world’s largest companies rely on a hidden workforce. These workers make up 94% of the companies’ total labour force, yet have no direct relationship with the multinational itself, whose CEOs take no responsibility for the welfare of the people who generate wealth for their shareholders. This exposes the scale of the crisis of human and labour rights in global supply chains.

Last year the EU’s Non-Financial Reporting Directive came into force, requiring companies to include statements on their environmental impact and respect for human rights in their annual reports. The first analysis of how this is being implemented across all the criteria finds companies are demonstrating superficial engagement at best.

Out of 100 companies analyzed by the Alliance of Corporate Transparency, over 90% reported a commitment to respect human rights. But only 36% describe their human rights due diligence system, while 26% provide a clear statement of salient human rights issues, and just ten percent describe examples or indicators to demonstrate effective management of these high risk issues.

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Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all companies have a responsibility to engage in human rights due diligence in order to identify, prevent and mitigate human rights impacts. This responsibility is echoed in the OECD Due Diligence framework, which has been used in other EU regulations to address conflict minerals.

Yet the Alliance for Corporate Transparency’s report finds that the lack of clarity in the EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive has resulted in companies opting for bare minimum compliance instead of deeper engagement in line with these international standards.

This lacklustre response by companies reflects the experience in other jurisdictions with mandatory transparency requirements, such as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act which has not delivered the transformational change many hoped for. The latest analysis found that 70% of FTSE 100 companies are not reporting sufficient measures to tackle slavery under the Act. An independent review is currently being carried out and an interim report recently recommended strengthening on the Act by introducing sanctions. Similarly, 28% of British companies assessed under the EU directive do not even mention modern slavery in their annual reports.

As noted by European Parliament Vice-President Heidi Hautala: “It is difficult to require sustainable decisions from investors if they have no visibility on sustainability of company’s actions.” Investors including the Investor Alliance for Human Rights, the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, and even the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock, are increasingly calling for companies to step up their engagement on social and environmental issues.

Some leading companies are heeding to this call, but they remain in the minority. Companies such as Finnish multinational Nokia and more than 70 other Finnish companies are also increasingly recognizing the business case for regulation in order to level the playing field.

There are signs that the call for human rights due diligence regulations is growing stronger across Europe. Under its National Action Plan on business and human rights, the German government has opened the possibility of legislative action if less than 50 percent of German companies implement human rights due diligence by 2020. A draft law is now under discussion reportedly requiring German companies with over 250 employees and more than €40 million in annual turnover to undertake human rights due diligence in their supply chains. Other governments including Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Austria are considering legislative proposals to examine the introduction of such legislation as well. All eyes are now on France, the first country to adopt such a requirement under its Duty of Vigilance law. While these national-level initiatives are important and welcome, they could lead to only piecemeal solutions.

To avoid this, the EU could play an important role in unifying and harmonizing these initiatives, and Finland is well-placed to take on this challenge during its EU Presidency. Finland is one of the first countries to issue a National Action Plan on business and human rights and has a strong movement of civil society groups, trade unions and companies calling for mandatory human rights due diligence legislation.

While more and more CEOs are recognizing the scandals of exploitation and even slavery in their supply chains, the pressure to act as responsible employers across their entire operations requires mandated due diligence. There can be no more excuses for business. They will be held for responsible for their failure to take action to prevent the risk of human and labour rights through their supply chains.

Stronger and more harmonized human rights due diligence requirements would go a long way in providing investors and civil society with better information to assess whether companies are doing enough to fulfil their human rights responsibilities and for companies to make more informed investment and purchasing decisions.

More importantly, if done right, they could save lives and livelihoods. To win back the confidence of workers and voters it will take the rule of law, and the guarantee of a secure and just future.

Sharan Burrow is secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation. Phil Bloomer is executive director of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Brazil

France to impose 10-day quarantine for travellers coming from Brazil

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France will order a strict 10-day quarantine for all travellers coming from Brazil starting 24 April, the prime minister's office said on Saturday (17 April), in a bid to prevent the spread of a coronavirus variant first found in the South American county.

France decided this week to suspend all flights to and from Brazil. The measure will be extended until April 23, the prime minister's office said in the same statement. Read more

Starting April 24, only people residing in France or holding a French or European Union passport will be allowed to fly to the country.

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The government will impose a 10-day quarantine on all travellers upon arrival, the prime minister's office said, and authorities will make checks before and after the flight that the travellers made the proper arrangements to isolate themselves.

The police will also be used to ensure the quarantine is respected, it said. Prior to boarding on the plane, authorised travellers will be required to present a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that is less than 36 hours old.

The same measures will also gradually be put in place by April 24 for people returning from Argentina, Chile and South Africa, where the presence of other coronavirus variants were detected, the prime minister's office said.

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A 10-day quarantine will also be imposed on travellers coming from the French Guiana, an overseas department of France on the northeast coast of South America.

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France suspends all flights to and from Brazil due to COVID variant

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France will suspend all flights to and from Brazil in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus variant first detected there, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said in parliament, writes Geert De Clercq.

“We take note that the situation is getting worse and we have decided to suspend all flights between France and Brazil until further notice,” Castex said.

Several leading French doctors have been calling on the government for days to stop all air traffic with Brazil.

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A month ago, Health Minister Olivier Veran said that around 6% of COVID-19 cases in France were from the more contagious variants first found in Brazil and South Africa.

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#Brazil chamber of deputies chief warns against shunning #Huawei

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The head of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies warned the country’s 5G auction policies should not be swayed by ideology, Reuters reported, days after rumours emerged the US was potentially offering incentives for operators to shun Huawei equipment, writes Chris Donkin of Mobile World Live.

Rodrigo Maia, who leads Brazil’s lower house, said communications regulator Anatel should be left to focus on encouraging free and fair competition designed to keep consumer prices low in its 5G auction policies, rather than getting involved in political debates about China.

The country is yet to hold its 5G spectrum auction, which had been scheduled for March but was pushed back earlier this year with a new date yet to be revealed.

Maia’s comments follow widespread reports of the US offering to provide finance to help operators in Brazil purchase equipment from alternative suppliers to Huawei.

If a funding deal materializes, it would be a significant step-up a US campaign to try and persuade allied countries to follow its own policies and shut Huawei and other vendors it deems a security risk out of 5G.

So far few other countries have slapped outright bans on operators using equipment from specific vendors, though a number have introduced various limits or restrictions to ensure a mix of suppliers.

Huawei has consistently denied all allegations related to the security of its equipment and Chinese state influence.

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