By Linda Scott Jakobsson
Over recent years my organization, Swedwatch, has revealed that goods purchased by public authorities are produced under poor working conditions, and where the risks of other business-related human rights abuses and environmental degradation in and around factories are high.
So, is it possible for government buyers to contribute to positive change by introducing social requirements into public contracts?
Swedish public authorities are generally considered forerunners when it comes to implementing sustainability criteria in their purchasing contracts, by international comparison.
Therefore, Swedwatch’s latest report, Agents for Change, tackles the question by presenting Swedish government purchasing practices in the context of three separate case studies of government procurement:
- Our first case study, described in reports published in 2007 and 2015, focused on the procurement of surgical instruments from Pakistan. It revealed that factory workers, including children, were working long hours in hazardous working environments without sufficient protective gear, and were paid a piece rate. The surgical instruments they produced were exported to hospitals in Sweden, as well as in Europe and the USA.
- Another Swedwatch report from 2015 highlighted that in Thailand, migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia were caught in slave-like conditions in the poultry export industry. Poultry meat produced in Thailand was eventually arriving on the plates of school children and in hospital kitchens within the borders of the EU, including Sweden.
- Swedwatch’s research in Brazil in 2015 showed that seasonal migrant workers hired to work on coffee farms are exposed to hazardous pesticides that are illegal within the EU, while safety gear is lacking. In 2013, 116 000 children between the age of five and seventeen were found to work in the agriculture sector in the Brazilian coffee state of Minas Gerias.
Following the publication of Swedwatch’s first report on public procurement, the 21 Swedish county councils and regions, which are responsible for healthcare in Sweden, developed a common code of conduct for their suppliers.
Mainly through the use of contract performance clauses, suppliers are required to have established policies and procedures in order to meet the county councils’ code of conduct.
The Swedish county councils and regions also founded a nationwide collaboration around the monitoring of eight different risk categories of products. This monitoring operates, for instance, via sending out self-assessment questionnaires to suppliers as well as via desktop and factory audits, when needed.
Swedwatch’s findings have strongly indicated that the use of social criteria has created positive change on working conditions in the production of surgical instruments in Pakistan, including wages and prevention of child labour.
Our latest report also highlights how Swedish municipalities and other contracting authorities are purchasing sustainability-certified coffee, which has the potential of contributing to better working conditions when, for example, harmful pesticides are avoided.
The report identifies three key factors as crucial to creating concrete improvements in supply chain conditions: risk awareness on the part of public buyers, monitoring efforts and political will.
Need for stronger awareness of human rights issues in supply chains
In the case of Thai poultry, Swedwatch’s investigation found that both contracting authorities and their suppliers lacked knowledge about the migrant workers’ situation. The buyers’ concerns and contract criteria were focused on the issues of animal welfare and product quality, rather than human rights.
Identifying and raising awareness of risks of human rights abuses in the supply chain is therefore an important first step when implementing social requirements. It will also determine how any social criteria are set and monitored.
In order to create change, a buyer needs to use its leverage to improve labour conditions in its supply chains and to influence suppliers to mitigate risks. Therefore, structured and long-term monitoring of suppliers’ procedures for safeguarding human rights and decent working conditions is needed to create real and sustainable improvements.
However, our report Agents for Change shows that, as in the Netherlands, monitoring is often neglected by Swedish contracting authorities in practice, and that procurement officers need both competence-building, more time and resources to improve the implementation of social criteria in an adequate manner.
Finally it must be said, that there is often a lack of true political support to bring public procurement into line with high-level government commitments to human rights, such as those included in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and Sweden’s National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights, launched in 2015.
It is one thing to say that responsible business and human rights must be promoted in public contracts, and another to enable effective implementation of social criteria and monitoring.
This requires political will, resources and cooperation between contracting authorities, within and across national borders.
In conclusion, there are many challenges in addressing such abuses in public procurement. Awareness of human rights issues is often low amongst suppliers of goods to the public market, who may lack knowledge of their supply chain below the first tier, and consequently about products’ ultimate provenance.
However, as Swedwatch’s investigations demonstrate; if there is political will, effective monitoring and proper human rights risk assessment, government buyers can be real agents for change.
Swedwatch is an independent, non-profit organization reporting on business relations in developing countries and environmental and human rights impacts in global supply chains. Swedwatch also covers public purchasing of goods produced in low-wage countries and is a strong voice in promoting social considerations to public actors, providing guidance and training on the topic through our helpdesk.