Tag Archives Germany

Hanging by a thread: what’s right – and wrong – with the new German supply chain law meant to protect human rights

After years of civil society campaigning against the working conditions of supply chain workers in the Global South supplying German companies and consumers, the German government recently agreed to the introduction of a human rights due diligence law. The law, supposed to force companies to ensure the human rights of these workers and affected communities in countries abroad, will likely be passed before the summer. But unless the parliament makes substantial changes, the law in its current form will not be enough to hold companies responsible. Furthermore, it fails to ensure that the voices of those affected most are heard, writes Josephine Valeske.

Credit: Solidarity Centre

In September 2012, 258 Pakistani workers were killed in a factory fire of a company that supplied garments mainly to German textile discounter KiK. In the aftermath, a survivor and three families of some of the victims filed a lawsuit against KiK under Pakistani law, claiming that the company should bear responsibility for the fire safety deficiencies in the supplier’s factory. After a legal battle of several years, German courts denied compensation since the case had lapsed according to Pakistani law.

From poisoning drinking water in Peru resulting from the German car industry’s copper mines, to expelling 4,000 people from their homes in Uganda to make room for a coffee plantation, to chemical company BASF doing business with a mine in South Africa despite 34 of its workers being shot during a strike, German companies almost routinely make headlines for their involvement in wrongs that they would not be able to get away with back home. A 2015 study from Maastricht University found that Germany ranks fifth globally for the number of companies in the country involved in human rights violations abroad.

The German example provides insight into how things can go very wrong even in countries that are supposed to rank highly in terms of safeguarding human rights. It seems that here, human rights assurance is selective, linked to citizenship rather than to being human. What else could explain the failure to also look after those linked indirectly to Germany, such as through supply chains?

Unfortunately, these are not standalone incidents, but manifestations of a system in which Western retailers, always in search of the cheapest suppliers, use workers’ vulnerabilities and weak legislation in other countries to push prices ever lower. While benefiting from an unequal global labour division, they pay lip service to the interests of those affected by their business activities and shift the responsibilities for upholding human and workers’ rights to their suppliers in the Global South.

A new supply chain law agreed on by the German government is supposed to change the extent to which participants in global supply chains serving German companies are protected. Called the ‘Lieferkettengesetz’ (supply chain law), the law is supposed to ensure that German companies perform due diligence in their supply chains and that those who are guilty of human rights violations are held responsible. This law is considered progressive, as it is one of the first that looks beyond country borders to the rights of those also indirectly linked to the country. German CSOs underscored the fact that the mere decision in favour of a supply chain law is a win, but its usefulness will have to be judged by whether it actually yields any change for the affected people on the ground. The law still has to be approved by parliament, which, depending on the MPs’ susceptibility to corporate lobbying, might either strengthen it slightly or weaken it further. What’s clear is that the law in its current form will not change the lives of those toiling under precarious and unsafe conditions in distant countries.

A toothless tiger

The international legal framework is massively biased towards corporations: under ISDS mechanisms, companies can sue governments for billions for negatively changing the investment climate and even for protecting workers if that harms their expected profits. But barely any legal mechanisms can be identified that allow to hold companies accountable for human rights violations incurred in other countries where their suppliers are located.

Following increased reporting on the role of German companies in human rights violations, German civil society led by a coalition of non-profit civil society organisations (CSOs) have been lobbying for years for a human rights due diligence law that would change how workers abroad are treated. Finally, the government came to an agreement on a law in mid-February. But the CSOs faced a massive corporate lobby on the other side that maintained a stronghold over the Ministry of Economic Affairs, evidenced by the fact that the German Minister for Economic Affairs, Peter Altmaier, exchanged regular emails on first-name basis with a corporate lobbyist. The corporate lobby was able to influence the law so that in its current form it remains a largely toothless tiger. Here are some of the ways in which the current proposal is failing those it’s supposed to protect:

The law lacks a civil liability provision that enables affected people abroad to directly take legal steps against German companies for human rights violations. Instead, an agency forming part of the German Ministry of Economic Affairs will examine whether companies adhere to their due diligence duties and can fine them for the failure to do so. NGOs and unions will have the possibility to file lawsuits in Germany in the name of victims under certain circumstances, but ultimately the victims cannot take action themselves.

It is still unclear whether the law will extend to more than the first-tier suppliers, which means that a vast number of human rights abuses further down the supply chain will likely remain unaddressed. The law mandates companies to take action further down the supply chain if they have substantiated reasons to believe that there are human rights violations, but it does not define what substantiated reasons are. For example, is it enough to know that children work under horrific conditions in Congolese mines that supply raw materials for batteries, or does a German battery company need to know specific details about its individual supply chain to be compelled to act?

The law will only apply to the roughly 600 companies that employ at least 3,000 staff members from 2023, and to around 2,900 companies with more than 1,000 staff members from 2024. It therefore overlooks more than 99% of German companies that belong into the category of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), many of which are operating in high-risk sectors such as the chemical or the textile industry. Furthermore, it does not include foreign-owned multinationals that conduct business in Germany, even if a large share of their profit comes from the German market.

The law does not reflect the wishes of the German public. The final compromise is disappointing and also blatantly undemocratic, since a survey had shown that 75% of Germans were not only in favour of a due diligence law, but wanted this law to include legal mechanisms to hold corporations liable for human rights violations, which are currently absent.

To top it all off, there’s a massive elephant in the room: apart from being structured by class, nationality and income, global supply chains are racialised, with people of colour dominating the lower value-added positions and supply chains becoming increasingly white as the value-added increases. Thus, people of colour are at the receiving end of the human rights violations the law was supposed to prevent. It’s not just a form of injustice – it’s blatantly racialized injustice.

Our inputs can help shape the law

The German due diligence law in its current form may be a disappointment, but there are signs of hope: similar processes are happening in other countries and at the international level. For example, the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament recently adopted a report requesting the European Commission to submit a formal proposal for a EU due diligence law that might include liability measures holding those responsible accountable at the EU level. Furthermore, the ongoing UN Treaty process, driven largely by affected communities from the Global South, aims to develop a binding legal treaty between the United Nations members to hold transnational corporations globally accountable.

And we still have the power to help change the law in its current form. So what can the public in Germany and elsewhere do while the law is still being negotiated? Stay updated about the current process on the CSO coalition’s website or Twitter account, and on the website of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (in English). Subscribe to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s multilingual newsletters to stay updated about general developments in different countries. The German CSOs will soon announce specific actions targeting parliamentarians. Finally, you can directly contact your local parliamentary representative and tell them why you think that an effective due diligence law is important.

About the author:

Josephine Valeske

Josephine Valeske holds a MA degree in Development Studies from the ISS and a BA degree in Philosophy and Economics. She currently works for the research and advocacy organisation Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. She can be found on Twitter @jo_andolanjeevi.

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Germany is a deeply racist country―stop pretending otherwise

While Germany has been lauded for agreeing to take in 1,700 refugees from refugee camp Moria that recently burned to the ground, the country has been cited as a role model for its rational, yet humane stance toward refugees ever since it took in more than one million people in a single year during Europe’s so-called ‘refugee crisis’. However, within the country a different type of crisis is brewing—one characterized by deep structural and societal racism. Only if Germany and international observers shake the deceptive perception of the country as ‘welcoming’, change can finally happen, writes Josephine Valeske.

Antirassismus Demo Berlin
Anti-racism demonstration in Berlin, September 2018. The banner reads 'Refugees welcome! Against racism and right-wing violence'. Credit: Uwe Hiksch on Flickr

Two weeks ago, only days after a ring of right-wing extremists was discovered in the German police force in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the police in what can be seen as a PR campaign asked Twitter users to use the hashtag #dankepolizei (‘thank you, police’) to tweet why they are grateful to the German police. The campaign backfired spectacularly. Within hours, there were hundreds of tweets using the hashtag to recount horrific instances of police violence, racial profiling, and verbal and physical abuse, many of them with an explicit focus on racism.

These instances are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Since the Black Lives Matter movement has put racism and police brutality on the public agenda in the USA, police violence has become a hotly debated topic also in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Left-leaning voices argue that racism in the German police force consists not, as leading police officials and politicians insist, of ‘Einzelfälle’ ―individual cases, exceptions to the rule―but that it is a structural problem. Despite mounting pressure on the ministry for interior affairs to gauge the extent and urgency of the problem, the German home minister, seen as one of the most right-leaning figures in Merkel’s cabinet, has repeatedly refused to conduct a study enabling a better understanding.

Meanwhile, the ‘Einzelfälle’ keep piling up. As far back as 2011, it became known that a right-wing group calling itself ‘NSU’ (National Socialist Underground) had murdered 10 people between 2000 and 2007, nine of them with Turkish roots. The crimes had been covered up for years by regional police forces and German secret services, partially by blaming the murders on the victims’ families while making use of racist stereotypes. The extent of the state’s involvement in the NSU and the cover up is yet unknown. Last year saw at least 1,664 attacks on refugees or refugee shelters in Germany, as visualised on this map. And on 20 February this year, a right-wing extremist gunman murdered nine people with a migration background and his mother in the town of Hanau.

This is just one form of direct violence driven by racism. Several less visible forms of racism plague Germany society. The question then arises: How come such multi-dimensional racism that has persisted throughout Germany has not been in the spotlight until now?

In White Innocence, Gloria Wekker in a fascinating dissection of racism in the Netherlands argues that the Dutch self-perception as an open, tolerant culture has led to many Dutch people ignoring racism even if it is staring them in the face. In a societal equivalent of “I have a black friend, so I cannot be racist”, instances of day-to-day racism are written off by referring to the Netherlands’ multicultural society. Although Germany’s culture and history are quite different, this observation struck a chord with me. Germany is often praised for how it remembers and deals with the crimes committed under Nazi rule, and a large share of the population likes to believe that it is anti-fascist. We all spent at least a year in high school studying and condemning the Holocaust, reading Anne Frank’s diary, and visiting former concentration camps―so we are obviously enlightened and anti-racist Germans!

This self-perception is wrong and incredibly dangerous. It takes the knowledge about a historical period and its atrocities as proof of a general ‘immunity’ to racist thought and behaviour. Because we know very well what happened in the past, we surely won’t repeat this, this logic goes. But while German education and commemorative culture emphasizes this historical period, others are completely erased. Perhaps only a few German students are aware of Germany’s colonial past and the genocide of the Herero and Nama in what was once German South West Africa (today’s Namibia), for example. This intentional forgetting has been labelled ‘colonial amnesia’. The German government has yet to answer to Namibia’s call for an official apology and reparations. The point is that Germany is selectively anti-racist and that racism in fact pervades everyday life, rooted in a ‘colonial amnesia’ and denial of structural racism and islamophobia that has persisted, albeit less visibly, after the Second World War.

When it comes to Germany’s supposedly humane refugee policy, Merkel is either lauded or hated for temporarily suspending the Dublin Agreement in 2015 and granting around one million refugees the possibility to apply for asylum in Germany. Whether her decision was indeed fuelled by humanitarian motives or simply a calculated move to combat Germany’s skilled worker shortage, we will never know. The Guardian recently called this Merkel’s “great migrant gamble”, as if the lives of a million people were no more than stakes in a game that could yield positive returns.

German government officials have time and time again emphasised they want to “fight the causes of flight”, leading to dubious development assistance deals that typically benefit the German economy more than the receiving countries – and to the death of thousands. In March 2016, Germany was the driving force behind a deal with Turkey in which the latter country gets paid to keep refugees out of Europe, after which the number of refugees entering Germany decreased considerably. Several such deals have since been made with North African countries like Libya even after full awareness that refugees are being tortured in Libyan detention camps financed with German and EU money. Germany is also a major contributor to Frontex, the European border ‘protection’ and coast guard agency that forces refugees to rely on ever-harder routes to Europe and has reportedly pushed back refugees, which makes it indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people every year in the Mediterranean Sea.

Ironically, if Germany was serious about “fighting the causes of flight”, it should probably shut down its ministry of foreign affairs and its many weapons manufacturing companies first. Looking at the number of persons driven from their homes by wars in which the US and its allies, including Germany, are involved, and at the havoc Germany’s economic policies are wreaking in the Global South, the handful of refugees Germany has ‘accepted’ from Moria seem to be no more than a tool to keep up the country’s appearance as humanitarian and welcoming. Finally, it must be acknowledged that Germany is profiting from and supporting the global division of labour that is at the root cause of systemic poverty and thus causes many forms of migration in the first place.

The first step we can take as Germans is to stop pretending that we’re doing enough and that we’re doing it well, and to critically look at and address the myriad forms of racism originating in the country. We are failing spectacularly at making Germany a safe haven for those who need safety most―and we have the moral obligation to change that.

Josephine Valeske
About the author:

Josephine Valeske holds a MA degree in Development Studies from the ISS and a BA degree in Philosophy and Economics. She currently works for the Transnational Institute and is the manager of the ISS Blog Bliss. She can be found on Twitter @josephine_on_tw.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.