International cooperation with the OECD’s central organisation and other NCPs
The third aspect of the NCP’s work is to cooperate and share best practice with the OECD and the 49 other national contact points. For the contact point system to gain trust, it is essential that multinational enterprises are subject to the same requirements and expectations regardless of which OECD country they are based in. The NCPs are organised differently, however, and their resources and status also vary, which challenges this principle.
INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINE KAUFMANN
Staying relevant and practical
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises have proven to be a flexible and practical instrument, able to keep up with a changing world and new demands.
Text: Marianne Alfsen, Felix Media.
‘The issues that challenge our lives and societies today are all in the Guidelines: climate and the environment, labour rights, corruption, human rights, taxes. That is the huge advantage of the OECD Guidelines; they touch on all aspects of responsible business conduct,’ says Christine Kaufmann.
In 2019, she was elected the Chair of the Working Party for Responsible Business Conduct in the OECD. The Working Party is in charge of ensuring the continued relevance of the Guidelines and the National Contact Points for Responsible Business Conduct – a unique complaints mechanism under the Guidelines, found in 49 countries.
The Guidelines were first created by OECD governments in 1976, at a time when international consensus on these matters was hard to come by. Over the years, the scope has broadened to address all areas where business interacts with society, in response to a world where boundaries are being erased and the playing field for an increasing number of businesses is global. The Guidelines were last revised in 2011, when a human rights chapter was added to align with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
Ahead of their time
The Litmus Test of the Guidelines’ ability to develop in step with society at large came when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2016. The Guidelines passed with flying colours and proved that they were ahead of their time. ‘The Guidelines talk about businesses being responsible in a broader sense. That they not only should do no harm, but actually contribute to society,’ says Kaufmann.
And that fit hand in glove with the SDGs: ‘We found a match with every single SDG in our Guidelines,’ continues Kaufmann, adding that: ‘Responsible business conduct is the best way to contribute to the SDGs.’
A practical tool
‘The Guidelines enshrine a vision shared by all stakeholders for business to contribute to society – and they don’t stop there: They break it down into bits and pieces that make that vision come alive and give affected people a voice through the NCP mechanism. This is what makes the OECD Guidelines unique,’ according to Kaufmann.
She explains that the operationalisation of the OECD guidelines, with a general Due Diligence Guidance document launched in 2018, is the result of continuous collaboration between the business community, trade unions, civil society and governments. They were formed in agreement through a multi-stakeholder process, which is a major key to their success.
In addition, Kaufmann says, the Due Diligence Guidance is written in plain language that is understood at middle-management level, since that is where action is taken. ‘The Working Party on RBC really makes an effort to live up to the OECD promise of Better Policies for Better Lives. And we have the instruments to do so – the National Contact Points for Responsible Business Conduct.’
A question of will
The National Contact Points for Responsible Business Conduct (NCPs) are found in each of the 49 countries that adhere to the Guidelines. They work to promote the Guidelines and handle complaints. In 2020, the NCPs have been around in their current form for 20 years.
‘The complaints mechanism is much better known now than two decades ago. But we still have a long way to go,’ Kaufmann says. She admits that there are huge differences between the NCPs when it comes to quality, status and practice in handling complaints. These differences need to be addressed.
‘I am an optimist by design,’ Kaufmann says. ‘Over the next decade, I want to see all NCPs provide an easily accessible, effective complaints mechanism, which serves as a forum for finding solutions through dialogue. This is not an issue of capacity, but political will.’
The NCP’s contributions in international forums
Sharing experience and examples of best practice are important to strengthening the NCP system. The Nordic and Baltic NCPs meet on a regular basis in a network established for this purpose.
The group has been recognised as a trust-based forum for raising specific issues, such as the best way of giving advice to businesses about due diligence, and concrete methods for successfully dealing with specific instances.
External experts shared their experience of work on responsible conduct in the financial and textile sectors. DNB, NORSIF and the Danish MP Pension gave examples of how the OECD guidance for the financial industry can be incorporated in the form of step-wise measures to identify and handle the risk of negative impacts. The Pierre Robert Group described the measures it uses to assess and deal with risk in textile production. The Confederation of Norwegian Trade Unions (LO) gave an introduction on challenges related to labour rights in the Nordic and Baltic countries, while the Forum for Development and Environment (ForUM) talked about how civil society can provide guidance to businesses. Chair of Norway’s NCP Frode Elgesem told state secretary Marianne Hagen that the public authorities’ strong support of the NCP’s work is particularly valuable in the work on responsible business conduct.
Norway’s NCP in cooperation with the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile, and the Norwegian Fashion Hub organised a separate workshop under the OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Cathrine Dehli, NCP member; Elin Kathrine Saunes, Manager of Norwegian Fashion Hub; Fleur Meerman, Senior Policy Advisor with SER; and Bente Follestad Bakken representing the NCP’s secretariat.
How can small and medium-sized enterprises work on prioritising risk in the supply chain?
This was the topic of a secondary event that the NCP co-hosted at the annual OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector, in cooperation with the Norwegian Fashion Hub and the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile. The event was a workshop where participants discussed how small and medium-sized businesses can perform better due diligence on the basis of a specific case concerning a small Dutch textile company. Representatives of the company explained how they had started working on risk assessment and that the work had revealed several types of serious risk in the supply chain. The workshop participants discussed how the company should prioritise dealing with these risks seen in light of the degree of severity and scope of the risk.
Responsible procurement practice, chemical management, investments in emerging markets and dilemmas relating to the gender perspective were just some of the numerous topics discussed.
The main message of the Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector was clear: Effective and ambitious international collaboration, with a focus on due diligence, will contribute to raising the living standard and create opportunities for individuals in the global supply chain.
More than 40 countries were represented at the forum, which brought together more than 400 experienced participants from business and industry, civil society, employee organisations and public authorities.
The main topic of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in 2019 was the need for national authorities to intensify efforts on responsible business conduct and ensure that businesses respect human rights and implement the UNGPs. Telenor, Hydro and Equinor took part in panel debates at the forum, which brings together several thousands of participants each year in Geneva.
Frode Elgesem, Chair of Norway’s NCP, gave the opening talk on the OECD’s work on responsible business conduct at a breakfast meeting for the large Norwegian delegation. State secretary Marianne Hagen took part in a panel debate on how to protect and prevent attacks on human rights defenders in cases relating to business activities.
The OECD has developed sectoral guidance documents that provide concrete and practical advice adapted to different industries. The guidance documents are unique in that they set out recommendations from governments prepared in cooperation with key business representatives from each industry. They focus on stakeholder engagement and also include a unique gender perspective. It is challenging for businesses to familiarise themselves with what is expected of them under the OECD Guidelines, and the sectoral guidance provides useful examples and advice. The NCP promotes the guidance documents at seminars and courses and has translated the full version of the textile industry guidance into Norwegian, in addition to preparing a brief version in Norwegian. The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct has also been translated in full into Norwegian, and a brief version in Norwegian has been developed for this guidance document. The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Meaningful Stakeholder Engagement in the Extractive Sector has been translated from English into the Norwegian and Sami languages.