Public Procurement and Human Rights: Putting the House in Order

August 10, 2016 •

COB Photo

By Claire Methven O’Brien
Strategic Adviser, Human Rights & Development, Danish Institute for Human Rights

Michelle Obama recently reminded us that slaves built the White House.

This historical fact about one of the world’s revered political monuments took many people aback.

Yet today, via their supply chains, governments and public bodies worldwide continue to rely on forced labour, human trafficking, and other serious human rights abuses, as they did 200 years ago. For example:

  • Child labour and forced labour have been found in Thai factories supplying Finnish health authorities with rubber gloves, alongside a range of other labour abuses including denial of legally required breaks and public holidays, discrimination against migrant workers, and unlawfully docking workers’ pay for work permits and accommodation.
  • In 2010, the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report found that government subcontractors tasked with filling logistics positions on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan were involved in human trafficking, forced labour, and sexual exploitation.
  • Labour organisers in facilities supplying governments are frequently subjected to harassment and abuse: in Bangladesh, a labour advocate at a factory making clothing for the U.S. General Services Administration was arrested and tortured by police in 2010 then found dead with clear signs of foul play in 2012.
  • Serious human rights abuses are present across ICT value chains. For example, forced labour was recently discovered in factories producing servers for Danish universities, and minerals needed for technology production such as cassiterite, coltan, and wolframite from the Democratic Republic of Congo appear on the U.S. Department of Labor “List of Goods” produced by forced labour.
  • Human trafficking and slavery have been discovered on a large scale amongst suppliers of everyday foodstuffs like fish and shrimp, in countries from Ireland to Thailand.

For most governments and procurement officials, and the citizens they serve, such revelations are as abhorrent as they are unexpected. Yet solutions are not always obvious.

Indeed, it can be a big challenge for public buyers even to identify which products and services carry risks for human rights—let alone what steps they can take to prevent or mitigate such risks effectively, while still staying on track with legal requirements around the procurement process and other buying objectives.

The International Learning Lab on Public Procurement and Human Rights aims to help bridge this knowledge gap.

The Lab will bring together procurement practitioners, legal and human rights experts, and other stakeholders to share tools and good practices, identify challenges, and find ways of overcoming these – with the ultimate goal to reduce human rights abuses in public supply chains.

The Lab’s intended role is to provide a much-needed forum for dialogue and peer exchange of resources, good practices, and lessons learned, both through face-to-face workshops, and virtually through this website.

Via our thematic Hubs, we will also undertake strategic research on issues affecting particular sectors and actors. Such material, we hope, will provide a strong basis for raising awareness, and helping to shape a new agenda for action, through targeted advocacy with policy-makers, the procurement community, and other key stakeholders.

On this basis, the Lab is launching a regular blog spot on this page to carry the discussion forward. Here, we will bring you news on key policy developments, new tools, resources, events – and diverse insights on working with public procurement and human rights from practitioners, researchers, and civil society.

In a fast moving global marketplace, tackling supply chain human rights abuses is a complex and often daunting challenge. Yet human dignity, as well as legal and policy frameworks on business and human rights, demand that governments now step up to the task. We hope the Learning Lab will support public purchasers as they move forward on that journey.

If you are interested in contributing to the Lab’s public procurement and human rights blog, please contact Claire Methven O’Brien,