Due diligence: an obligation for companies, a new mission for trade unions

Force Ouvrière strengthens its members’ skills in understanding French legislation on due diligence to enhance the protection of rights in international operations.

Due diligence or a duty of care, which France introduced with a law passed in 2017, is a corporate obligation that trade unions have yet to familiarise themselves with. It aims to combat violations of fundamental rights (at work, or relating to health, the environment, etc.) resulting from their operations around the world. Around eighty Force Ouvrière (FO) members received training on this new instrument during an event organised at the confederation on 16 January 2024. “Whether the work is carried out on site or by a subcontractor on the other side of the world, it is our responsibility as trade unionists to ensure that fundamental rights are respected,” said Branislav Rugani, confederal secretary of the international sector, at the opening of the session. “What’s the point of defending workers’ rights here or regulating companies’ impact on the environment if all or part of the production is outsourced to places where no regulations exist?” To remedy such disparities, the principle of due diligence has been developed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In France, the principle of due diligence is set out in a law passed in 2017 that requires companies with more than 5,000 employees (in their direct and indirect subsidiaries) and those with more than 10,000 employees worldwide, regardless of where their head office is located, to publish an annual due diligence plan regarding health, safety, environmental and human rights violations that may occur in their supply chains. Two hundred and fifty to three hundred companies are currently required to draw up this plan.

This law, however, is rarely applied. A study conducted by FO reveals the difficulties encountered. No implementing decree has been published and no truly dissuasive sanctions have been introduced. Of the companies that do meet their obligations, very few draft their due diligence plans through social dialogue. Awareness of the legislation is still very limited, in some instances even among trade union representatives, who are not allocated specific delegation hours for training on the subject. “Workers’ representatives have been largely overlooked by companies when it comes to implementing the law on due diligence,” says the FO study.

The law therefore needs to be improved to ensure a more clearly defined role for trade unions. A draft directive was approved by the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament on 14 December 2023. “In this text, a central role is given to trade unions and employee representatives, and the establishment or designation of administrative authorities should enable better monitoring of due diligence obligations,” said Branislav Rugani. The scope of the companies concerned should also be extended to include those with more than 500 employees and a turnover of €150 million. Pending the final adoption of the text (expected by the end of February), FO will continue to press for other improvements, such as the inclusion of the financial sector (already covered by French law) in this directive.

During the event, FO was able to organise time with B. SCHREIBER of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, I. SCHÖMANN of the European Trade Union Confederation and K. ÖZKAN of IndustriAll Global, to discuss the international and European dimensions of this fight to ensure respect for workers’ rights around the world, at every stage in the supply chain. In addition to the practical and concrete implementation of due diligence, supported by a booklet on the subject drawn up by Force Ouvrière’s International Sector (available here), international solidarity issues were discussed by the FO trade unionists present on the day, and concrete examples such as the Yves Rocher case in Türkiye were raised.