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What responsibilities do companies have to prevent sexual violence & harassment on their plantations?

Melanie Jacques and Louise Williams consider what can be done to protect workers from sexual violence and harassment on plantations around the world.

Woman working on a plantation
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Melanie Jacques is a Chartered Legal Executive who specialises in international human rights claims, with a focus on claims arising out of war and armed conflict. Louise Williams is a paralegal in the international department.
In February 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published “Gender-based violence and environment linkages: The violence of inequality”, a comprehensive study of the patterns of gender-based violence (GBV) across a range of contexts, including its prevalence in the agricultural sector.
 
The issue of sexual harassment and GBV on plantations is long-standing and well documented. Research shows that there is a systemic problem of male workers at plantations abusing their positions of power in relation to the women working under their supervision. This abuse of power is often manifested as rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual coercion and discriminatory behaviour.
 
Such behaviours are not limited to a specific agricultural sector. From industrial palm oil, to sugarcane, tea, and cut flowers, agribusiness has been blighted by reports of widespread sexual violence and harassment towards female agricultural workers.
 
This is because the features of plantation work, which in the most part involves unskilled labouring work, often performed alone in the fields, render female workers particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and discrimination.
 
The temporary and informal nature of the work creates a power imbalance between employers and employees, which can easily be abused by male supervisors. In addition, inadequate and ineffective grievance mechanisms mean that victims of sexual violence at work are often left with no remedies.
 
Sexual harassment and abuse of female workers occur on agricultural plantations and factories owned and/or operated by large multinational companies, or part of their international supply chains. However, complex supply chains and opaque corporate structures often make it hard for companies to be held to account for human rights abuses committed abroad.
 

Do companies have a responsibility to prevent sexual harassment and GBV on their plantations?

 
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) outline businesses’ responsibility to address any adverse human rights impacts resulting from their own activities, or as a result of their business relationships with other parties, including their subsidiaries and in their supply chains.
 
In order to meet their responsibility, businesses are required to take adequate measures for the prevention, mitigation and, where appropriate, remediation, of human rights violations. In 1992, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) specifically recognised that GBV was a form of discrimination against women and a violation of their human rights.
 
Other relevant international instruments include the Global Compact, which provides that “businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights”; the OECD Guidelines, which require companies not to discriminate against their workers on “such grounds as race … sex … social origin, or any other status”; and the Committee on World Food Security Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems (CFS Principles), which provide that responsible investment requires “respecting the fundamental principles and rights at work, especially those of agricultural and food workers”.
 
Though not legally binding on corporations, these international instruments demonstrate the standard of care that companies should adopt when guarding against human rights abuses.
In light of the numerous reports highlighting sexual violence and harassment on plantations, it is clear that agribusiness companies have not been taking sufficient measures to tackle this issue.
 
This lack of engagement on behalf of corporations, in particular the lack of effective measures of protection, could potentially give rise to legal liability against the parent companies in some jurisdictions.
 
In the UK, it is now well established that a parent company may owe a duty of care to individuals affected by the activities of its subsidiaries (Leigh Day has acted in many of these cases, including in the recent Supreme Court decision in Lungowe v Vedanta Resources plc).
 
Such a duty may require companies to take all reasonable steps to prevent female workers from suffering foreseeable harm in the workplace as a consequence of GBV.
 
It is therefore vitally important for companies to implement Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies and strategies from a gender-focused perspective to ensure non-discrimination and protection of vulnerable female workers.
 
Most importantly, it is essential that these companies continue to be held to account for these human rights abuses both nationally and internationally.
 

Louise Williams

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