Published: 26/05/2011

The updated OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises were officially adopted in Paris on May 25, opening up new potential for unions to make use of the procedures. The updated Guidelines contain a new chapter detailing their application to supply chains and to forms of business relationships which have previously shielded companies from responsibility and accountability, such as licensing and franchising arrangements. A new chapter on human rights specifies a broader range of human rights instruments to serve as a reference for corporate behavior than was the case earlier. And the employment chapter – the one most used by trade unions in bringing complaints under the OECD procedures – has been broadened to include important elements from the ILO Tripartite Declaration on Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy.

The IUF was closely involved at every stage in the update process, as well as in the elaboration of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights elaborated by the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, which served as the reference for key sections of the update. The Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) deserves the appreciation of the labour movement and its allies for the commitment and skill which they applied to ensuring maximum union input throughout the process, work which was critical to achieving an update that was actually an improvement.

The Guidelines remain very much a work in progress. Effective use of the Guidelines has always been hampered by their textual ambiguity (now at least partially remedied) and in practice by the studied refusal of key National Contact Points to apply them in an even-handed manner – or to even apply them at all. The updated Guidelines offer some improvements in this area but lack the firm rules of procedure which unions had insisted from the start of the update process was the key to making them work. Unions seeking to effectively make use of the Guidelines will have to continue pushing so that the system of National Contact Points functions as it should. The IUF’s experience with the Guidelines, frustrating as it has been at many times and in many places, has shown that it can be worth the push.