It is a shocking double standard that British companies can currently get away with things in developing countries that would be completely unacceptable in the UK. Companies are not being properly held to account and victims are being denied justice.
So why is this the case? A large part of the problem is that all the possible paths that victims could take to justice are fraught with obstacles.
In the first place it is really difficult for victims to raise an issue with the company which has allegedly harmed them. While some companies may have a system for hearing complaints from workers or local communities, many do not. And where they do exist they may not be well publicised. But more fundamentally, when an issue has become very serious – for example when a person has been raped or seriously injured – it is not right that they should have to go to the company which may have been complicit in this atrocity to try to get help.
So where next? Trying to bring a case in the country where the harm took place should be a good option in theory. But in reality there are all sorts of issues that stand in the way of this route to justice. It may be hard to find a lawyer with the necessary resources and expertise, willing to take on a case against a powerful multinational company; victims may face intimidation if the Government or the company don’t want bad publicity; and there simply might not be the right laws in place (for example relating to worker or human rights) for a victim to use.
And unfortunately that is partly true in the UK too. We do not have a law that states it is a criminal offence for companies to violate human rights overseas. We have a law against ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ – but this does not apply overseas.
So the small number of cases that have been brought in the UK to date have used the civil courts instead. This means that victims have sued the company for being negligent or for failing in its ‘duty of care’ to workers or communities. But recent changes to the way these cases are funded will make them less viable in the future because there is no legal aid and law firms may no longer be able to recoup their costs – even if they win.
And lastly there is no independent non-court body victims can complain to. There is something called the OECD National Contact Point (NCP) which some organisations have used to raise concerns about companies’ behaviour overseas. But it does not have the power to fine a company, or to direct it to change its behaviour, or to award compensation to the victim. Its position within the Department of Business also compromises its independence.
So it is extremely tough to hold companies to account. Victims face barriers at every turn and the path to justice is blocked.
That is why Traidcraft’s Justice Campaign is calling on our political leaders to tell us what they will do to improve this situation and make access to justice a reality.