Which parties are involved in the IRBC agreements, and why?

Why do sectors initiate IRBC agreements?

In its 2014 advisory report on IRBC agreements, the SER argues that economic sectors and businesses should take the initiative to conclude international responsible business conduct agreements with government, trade unions and NGOs. Sectors are following this advice. In many cases, such initiatives follow on logically from other activities meant to promote sustainability within the relevant sector’s value chain. What is unique about these agreements, however, is the broad coalition supporting them. Collective initiatives of this kind are expected to produce a much greater impact in the end.

Why is the Dutch government supporting the IRBC agreements?

The Dutch government is committed to promoting compliance with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. It also has a duty to protect human rights. That duty goes beyond protection, however; it also involves preventing and combatting human rights abuses by other actors in society, including businesses. Government can take specific steps in this context by participating actively in IRBC agreements. Interest in responsible value chain management is growing worldwide, and the Dutch system of voluntary IRBC agreements has attracted attention in Europe and beyond.

Rijksoverheid logoThe agreements are also an important tool for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations in 2015. National governments bear primary responsibility for achieving the SDGs. The relevant UN declaration also calls on the private sector to help achieve the UN’s ambitious agenda.

Why do trade unions support IRBC agreements?

Dutch trade unions are often actively involved in preventing and combatting abuses, especially in such areas as child labour, living wage, and trade union rights. Unions sometimes take action directly or through partner organisations in developing countries with a view to achieving improvements in such areas. By combining their knowledge and networks with those of other organisations in a sector-level agreement, they help ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Which unions are involved depends on the specific agreement.

Why do NGOs support IRBC agreements?

There are many different non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in the Netherlands. They are often national branches of a worldwide organisation, but some are also organisations with their roots and headquarters in the Netherlands. All are focused on preventing and eliminating abuses around the world. Some specialise in the rights of children, others in animal welfare or environmental issues, and yet others in human rights. NGOs have the knowledge, networks and drive to augment the impact of IRBC sector-level agreements. Many of them are knowledgeable about and have networks in the countries or regions covered by the agreements. Which NGOs are involved depends on the specific agreement. 

Is cooperation self-evident?

It’s tempting to say ‘yes’ in answer to this question, but in reality cooperation between businesses, trade unions, NGOs and government is not always easy. In many cases, the parties have very different interests and very different approaches. They have to build trust step-by-step by getting to know and understand one another better. Each of the resulting agreements is therefore unique. The broad coalition between businesses in a value chain and trade unions, NGOs and government is an entirely new phenomenon that cannot be hurried and must be nurtured with great sensitivity. Once several parties have decided to work together towards an agreement, they enter an intensive process in which they get to know one another and negotiate the terms and conditions. Sometimes things happen quickly, but at other times opinions differ so much that the parties need more time to reach an agreement that is satisfactory to all and still complies with the principles of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Cooperation also does not cease once an agreement has been signed. On the contrary, that’s when the real work begins, because that is when the parties face the challenge of achieving the agreed aims within a specified period of time.

What is the SER’s role in all this?

The Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER) was founded to connect or to enhance relationships between diverse parties through dialogue. Traditionally, it has done so by bringing employees and employers together in an advisory body on socio-economic issues.

The SER is drawing on its knowledge and experience to help the parties involved in developing IRBC agreements negotiate terms satisfactory to all. The parties involved in such negotiations consist of the representatives of the relevant sector (usually industry associations), trade unions, NGOs and government.

The SER facilitates many different agreements in this fashion. It should be noted that the parties are under no obligation to make use of the SER’s services. The signing of an agreement is only the first step: in the period thereafter, the parties must hammer out the details. Here too, the SER can play a role. Expert staff help the businesses and other parties implement the relevant agreements.

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