60 companies and business federations have addressed a letter to the Belgian government asking for a national legal framework to be established that obliges companies to take responsibility when it comes to respecting human rights and the environment in their supply chains. They are supported in this by Enabel’s Trade for Development Centre and Fairtrade Belgium.
On Thursday 4 February, Minister of Development Cooperation Meryame Kitir and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Employment Pierre-Yves Dermagne received the letter from two signatories, Ann Claes (JBC) and Bruno Van Steenberghe (Kalani), at the Evere branch of JBC.
For Ann Claes, CEO of JBC’s parent company Claes Retail Group, “sustainability is a broad and complex issue and partnerships play an essential role in this. This is why we believe in the need for a legal framework. So that sustainable initiatives by entrepreneurs and companies don’t just remain a drop in the ocean. We notice that the younger generations are increasingly speaking out for the kind of world they want to live in. And it is up to us to listen to them and to act.”
According to various recent market studies, Belgians demand transparency and respect for people and the environment. For example, the 2019 study by GFK indicated that 62% of Belgians believe that companies should carry out their activities with respect for human rights and the environment (1).
“Social, economic and ecological sustainability should not be an option, but a mandatory basic standard for companies to be allowed to operate,” adds Bruno Van Steenberghe. “We need a legal framework to accelerate this change, because time is running out.” There is indeed a time pressure: the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 45.8 million adults worldwide are the victim of modern slavery. In addition, there are 150 million children who work illegally, 73 million of which in dangerous conditions such as, for example, ore mining. Furthermore, the production of certain raw materials (such as palm oil, cocoa and coffee) and fabric dyeing in the textile industry cause serious environmental damage (water and soil pollution, deforestation…). The global COVID-19 crisis will make this situation worse and increase inequalities if swift action is not taken.
Belgian companies make an important contribution to international development, and large parts of our economy depend on the import of raw materials. So we cannot remain blind to what is happening in the supply chains. This is also the reason why more and more companies are committed to playing a positive social role and signing the Belgian SDG Charter (2) for international development.
Without a legal framework the door is open to unfair competition
Preventing, identifying and actively combatting violations of human rights and the environment in international chains entails costs and investments. Legislation also provides incentives and rewards efforts, creating a level playing field between companies.
“Almost eight years have passed since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, when 1,134 workers died after their unsafe textile workshops collapsed. Since then, some voluntary initiatives have been taken by the industry and we see increased support for binding legislation. But more is needed”, says Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne. “In addition to the initiatives taken at the European level and by the UN, a national framework for due diligence is important. Right now, on the initiative of the PS party in Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives, the first steps are already being taken to arrive at an ambitious and coherent framework.”
France, the Netherlands and a few other European countries have not waited for the European legal framework to take action and come up with legislation themselves. By adopting ambitious national legislation, Belgium could influence the European regulations further still. In addition, a Belgian law can give companies the necessary impetus to get themselves ready for and adjust to a market where political decision-makers, consumers and investors have increasingly higher expectations of corporate social responsibility.
This request from the companies is also fully in line with the federal coalition agreement, which states that: “…the government will play a pioneering role in the development of a European legislative framework on duty of care. Where possible, a national framework will be developed in support of this.”
“This is a textbook example of how the government and the private sector are pulling together as fully-fledged partners. How together we can really bring about change. How we can strengthen each other in what is a shared concern. And really appreciating workers, that is actually very simple. That is doing everything to make sure that those who work for you can do so in a good way and that they feel good. Because there’s profit in that too.” Minister Meryame Kitir concluded.