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5th Dec 2021

Opinion

This 'Black Friday' is a turning point in corporate accountability

  • 'Black Friday' deals are not always as innocent as they look (Photo: Shutterstock)
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The discounts can be tempting, but there are hidden costs for people and the planet behind every 'too good to be true' price tag.

Some retailers like Amazon have been running promotions since the start of November to drum up sales for the holiday season. Others are eagerly awaiting this weekend's shopping bonanza.

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But Black Friday deals are not always as innocent as they look – and that's not only because of the creative marketing that many retailers use to mislead shoppers.

This strange import from across the Atlantic has another dark side: it is totally incompatible with workers' rights and our efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. Why? Because in the corporate race for sky-high profits, nothing matters as much as making products as cheaply as possible.

Farmers say Ferrero does not pay a fair price for hazelnuts that end up in our favourite treats.

Powerful electronic devices and shimmery cosmetics contain a mineral called mica, which is sourced from mines where child labour is rife.

And while no one wants their festive jumpers to be tainted with abuses, five brands, including C&A and Hugo Boss, are currently under fire in Germany for allegedly benefitting from forced Uyghur labour in China's Xinjiang region.

Consumers are often not aware if the things they buy have been produced under exploitative or harmful working and living conditions. Such products and services shouldn't even be an option – and Europeans seem to agree with us.

That's what a recent YouGov poll clearly shows: over 80 percent of citizens from across multiple EU countries want strong laws to hold companies liable for overseas human rights and environmental violations.

The new EU law

The results come ahead of the European Commission's expected announcement next month of a new human rights and environmental due diligence law, which would apply to the value chains of all companies that operate or have their headquarters in the EU.

Earlier this year, 500,000 citizens and over 200 organisations, including the European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ) and European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), demanded that the law must require companies to prevent environmental harm and human rights violations, including workers' and trade union rights, and hold corporations accountable when they fail to do so.

Faced with crises on an unprecedented scale, this future EU law will need to have teeth if it's going to make a difference.

As citizens, civil society and trade unions, we have big expectations from our political leaders: companies must face strong penalties if they break the rules and be held civilly and criminally liable for bad practices, at home and abroad. Only this will remedy the exploitation and abuse. Only this will make it easier for victims, trade unions, and civil society to seek justice and take responsible companies to court in Europe.

Every holiday season is a reminder that Black Friday is a social, environmental and climate disaster. The 'buy now' button can provide instant gratification, but the ramifications for the global workforce and society at large are long-lasting.

Not only does it put a strain on workers' physical and mental health as they work around the clock to meet quotas, it is also bad for the environment.

If last year is any indication, this pre-holiday period could potentially be more polluting than ever, from production to transport to waste. Forecasts are expecting a surge in sales, anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent up on last year. A growing preference for online shopping is also worsening knock-on effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

So much of this remains hidden from plain sight – not only to us as consumers but to the companies themselves.

Over the past decades, they have built increasingly longer, more complicated, and more opaque supply chains, which have become harder to monitor, control and account for.

Yet we are at a turning point. With the promised but long overdue directive, the EU has an opportunity to position itself as a leader in corporate accountability. So, will it stand up for farmers, warehouse workers and delivery drivers around the world? Will it finally oblige companies to respect the planet's boundaries?

It is now high time for the EU Commission to act. We cannot wait any longer. Any day lost to delays is a day lost for human, social and trade union rights.

Since 2017, France has a law requiring companies to carry out human rights and environmental due diligence. Germany stepped up this year with its own supply-chain law, and the Netherlands and Belgium are also catching up.

While those laws are not perfect yet, they are an important starting point to weed out abuses such as forced labour, child labour, trade union busting, and killings of land defenders.

To shift from a 'race to the bottom' to a 'race to the top', the EU will need to put workers, trade unions, and local and indigenous communities at the forefront. They must be the main source of input on how well companies are doing and what needs to improve on the ground. Safe and meaningful engagement, as well as collective bargaining, are essential elements of this.

Consumers and workers cannot be expected to carry the weight of this broken system on their shoulders alone. Not on Black Friday or any other day.

It's up to European leaders to change the rules of the game. Business will have to follow.

Author bio

Claudia Saller is the director general of the European Coalition for Corporate Justice. Isabelle Schömann is confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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