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For humane working conditions

Do companies respect human rights? And how can this be proven? Germany has launched a unique system of monitoring.

Tanja Zech, 13.12.2018
A coveted raw material: lithium extraction in Bolivia
A coveted raw material: lithium extraction in Bolivia © Marcelo Perez del Carpio/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Companies with a base in Germany are supposed to guarantee that they respect human rights throughout their production chain. This is stipulated by the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAP). But how can this be proven? The first country in the world to do so, Germany has now introduced a broad-based system of monitoring to check the extent to which companies meet their responsibilities.

What is the objective of the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights?

By 2020, at least half of all the country’s 7,100 companies with more than 500 employees are supposed to have anchored the five core elements of human rights due diligence in their business processes. Upholding human rights thus becomes a not insignificant challenge for management:

  1. A declaration of principles on the respect of human rights
  2. Procedures to investigate any adverse effects on human rights
  3. Measures to avert potentially negative effects and to check the effectiveness of these measures
  4. Reporting
  5. A complaints mechanism
We want globalisation to be sustainable and fair. Respect for human rights plays a central role in this.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas

Where might human rights be violated?

For example when people work in dangerous buildings and factories without protection against fire, when they are exposed to toxic chemicals, when they receive insufficient pay or when they are not permitted to join trade unions or other groups that will represent their interests.

Human rights can also be violated when people’s livelihoods are jeopardised, however. For example during the extraction of lithium, the raw material needed for batteries in electric vehicles. The large amount of water that this requires may conflict with the fundamental right of local residents to drinking water. Rather than abandoning such commercial activities, however, solutions need to be found: in return for accessing the raw materials, the companies concerned could engage in a dialogue with the local population and undertake to ensure their water supply. As a result, both sides will benefit.

How is the NAP monitoring carried out?

In November 2018, Germany’s federal government wrote a letter to companies in which it encouraged them to take part in the monitoring process, which is being run by an independent auditing firm. In an initial step, it has interviewed 30 companies that represent a cross-section of German business. Based on the results, a questionnaire for human rights due diligence was drawn up; it will be presented to companies during two survey phases in 2019 and 2020. The information they voluntarily provide will then undergo a plausibility check.

Initially, the German government will assume that companies are willing to commit on a voluntary basis. Once the monitoring results have been analysed, it will decide whether laws are needed.

Are other countries following suit?

In a globalised economy, working conditions can only be improved if everyone does their bit – and above all the leading industrialised nations. In international forums such as the G7 and G20, Germany is therefore fighting for human rights at the workplace and for sustainable supply chains, and is promoting a common approach within the EU.

National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (PDF file)


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