German companies active overseas continue to play a role in human rights abuses, according to a new study by two NGOs. The groups say the government has done too little to regulate German business abroad.
Germany is a country low on raw materials. Fossil fuels like coal, as well as metals like copper, steel and cobalt, need to be imported by utility and automobile companies alike. Textiles, coffee and fruit are also among the country's top imports.
But German companies that import products are often not concerned about the human rights abuses that are committed by their suppliers, a report released this week by the non-governmental organizations Germanwatch and Misereor say.
"It's about taking responsibility for the entire chain of production," says Germanwatch's Cornelia Heydenreich, one of the co-authors. "Companies are also responsible when they benefit from human rights abuses that are committed by states."
Germany's top DAX listed companies were among the firms the groups investigated as part of the study. Although awareness of human rights standards was generally high among the companies, there was a lack of action on the issue, say the report's authors.
Heydenreich cites coal imports from Colombia as a classic example. Social and political upheaval goes hand in hand with the mining industry in the Latin American country.
"Trade union members are persecuted, and the rights of indigenous people are ignored," says Heydenreich, pointing to evictions and land expropriation in north-eastern Colombia. German companies don't necessarily do the mining directly, but they do import the resources that are mined, so are also responsible, she says.
Demand dictates the offers
So far no company checks whether their imports have a negative effect on working conditions among their suppliers, says the study. The strong buying power and purchasing practices of German supermarkets are responsible for a number of human rights abuses in banana, mango and pineapple production in South America, the authors say.
Ecuador's banana producers and exporters have confirmed that they are being put under pressure to produce fruit for very low prices, according to the report. This, in turn, means pay for local plantation workers remains low.
The German Federal Association for Economic Development and Foreign Trade (BWA) says it only learns of overseas human rights abuses caused by German companies through the media.
"We support companies that speak up against human rights abuses," says BWA Chairman Dirk Bohrmann, adding that that is also the case for suppliers. Binding rules would mean that "it would be easier to make competition transparent," according to Bohrmann.
The BWA boss says things are improving: Human rights issues are now an inherent part of guidelines and tenders for work. That wasn't the case in the past, he says.
Politicians in the spotlight
In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council approved a set of guiding principles on business and human rights which calls on companies around the world, not just member states, to respect human rights.
The UN principles also make it clear that victims of human rights abuses should be able to issue complaints and seek retribution from companies. All UN member states were called on to follow the principles.
So far, Germany has not made an effort to follow through on the guidelines. In fact, the authors of the report claim that the German government is neglecting its international duty to prevent or punish German companies for human rights abuses.
Contacted for comment, Germany's economics ministry referred DW to the national contact center, where complaints can be made against companies that breach the OECD guidelines for multinationals.
The OECD guidelines refer to the UN principles but are not binding. That, Germanwatch's Claudia Heydenreich says, is why they are insufficient.
German companies also used the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which collapsed in April 2013
"They are only recommendations to the companies by the governments. We need binding parameters so that all companies can maintain these standards," she told DW.
Three years after approval of the UN principles, the German government agreed in its recent coalition deal to put them into practice.
"We expect from the government that they now make clear which ministry is responsible for this issue," says Heydenreich. The ministries for development, foreign affairs, economics, labor and justice could all take on that role.