The role of businesses in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was a key theme at last week’s RELX Group SDG Inspiration Day. In particular, companies can support SDG 8 by doing due diligence on their supply chains to ensure they are free from forced labour and child labour. The conference also revealed increasing expectations from consumers and investors that companies should contribute to rebuilding society and the economy after the damaged one by COVID-19.
What is the SDG Inspiration Day?
The latest RELX Group SDG Inspiration Day took place on 24th June. More than 100 representatives from business, NGOs, academia and civil society met virtually for sessions on the theme of “Creating the World We Want: One Decade, 17 Goals, Now and Post-Pandemic”. Speakers included:
- Graça Machel, co-founder of The Elders and member of the UN Secretary - General’s SDGs Advocacy Group.
- Griet Cattaert, Head of Labour Rights at the United Nations Global Compact.
- Dr Márcia Balisciano, Global Head of Corporate Responsibility for RELX Group.
- Dr Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet medical journal.
How can companies improve labour conditions?
One session focused on the role of businesses in achieving SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), led by Griet Cattaert, Head of Labour Rights at the UN Global Compact. She set out the challenges of poor working conditions in many parts of the world, including:
- Over 60% of all workers lack any kind of employment contract and 630 million workers live in extreme or moderate poverty.
- 152 million children are employed in child labour.
- COVID-19 will make this situation worse. This month a report from the International Labour Organisation and UNICEF predicted child poverty will increase after the virus, which will undo some of the work to reduce child poverty by 94 million since 2000.
Cattaert said “responsible business conduct is even more important since the crisis” and called on major companies to put pressure on suppliers to improve working conditions. Actions should include:
- Obtaining an “overview” of supply chains. “Visible supply chains area necessity to have these discussions on improving labour relations,” she said.
- Looking “deep down” at “lower tiers” of supply chains, where child labour or forced labour are often more likely to happen.
- Maintaining open lines of communication with third parties and suppliers. To improve labour conditions in their supply chains, companies should develop “long-term partnerships” and have “open conversations” with suppliers.
Another session on SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) also stressed the critical role of businesses. The session was chaired by Gaythri Raman, Managing Director of South-Eas Asia for LexisNexis Legal & Professional. She said the rule of law is “the infrastructure necessary for the SDGs to succeed and to flourish” and the “congruence between the private sector and civil society” can support the rule of law to be established and protected around the world.
How can companies tackle COVID-19?
In a keynote address, UN advisor Graça Machel said the impact of the pandemic has reinforced the importance of partnerships between businesses, governments, and civil society to find solutions to humanity’s problems. “COVID-19 came suddenly, and we were shaken to the core because we felt no-one will be left out of the threat of Coronavirus”, she said.“ But the positive benefits that we managed to come together, we saw governments working with other governments and the private sector putting in resources and working harder to produce what is necessary for prevention.”
She said this encouraging development should remind all of the sectors that “we do have the capacity to mobilise when we feel there is a common cause which has to be tackled”. Since COVID-19, it seems clear that companies are now expected to play a leading role in improving society. Those that ignore this reality face growing reputational, financial, and strategic risks.