IDSN Executive Director, Meena Varma, spoke on the all-female panel of the live-streamed event organised by The Norwegian Church on July 31, to discuss the deep structural injustices characterising global production, consumption and trade, and what consequences these injustices have on the most vulnerable.

The event was opened by Guro Almås, senior adviser in the Church Council / Interchurch Council, who addressed the possibilities for both national and international developments in business and human rights and stressed the importance of the Transparency Act, recently passed by the Norwegian parliament, which has been heralded as a ‘game changer’. Ms. Almås outlined how Norwegian companies may risk being involved in caste discrimination and stressed that they must confront the issue in sourcing countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal etc.

Meena Varma, gave some background on caste discrimination and how it is linked to trade and global supply chains. She stated that ‘caste in global supply chains is one of the biggest labour rights abuses in the world’. Being a Dalit increases vulnerability to labour exploitation because discrimination and poverty leave many Dalits with no alternatives.

Ms. Varma detailed how many countries purchase goods from industries based in caste-affected countries without being aware of the issue. The carpet industry has a huge problem with child labour as most of the workers are under 14. In the stone and mineral industry, workers are forced to endure exploitative conditions for cosmetics and car paint. The garment industry is rife with modern slavery, child labour and exploitative conditions. All of these industries, and many others, have Dalits working in them in the most dangerous and poorly paid roles. They are often at the bottom of most supply chains and are the most invisible, and therefore the most vulnerable.

Ms. Varma praised the Dalit Solidarity Network – Norway and Ethical Trade Norway for championing the Transparency Act in Norway and for helping raise awareness of this issue – but emphasized that the new law must mandate remedies for human rights abuses as “transparency means nothing without liability”.

Bringing light to the consumer perspective, Lin Olderøien, a political philosopher with a focus on business and human rights from the NTNU Business School, stressed the difficulty in being a consumer – even when we buy a sweater we are exposed to a moral dilemma. She stated that we must ask ourselves if we have the necessary information that we need, but too often the answer is that we do not. It is important for consumers to trust their governments and the companies they buy from, but warned against voluntary guidelines where compliance is optional.

Executive Director of Ethical Trade Norway, Heidi Furustøl, followed to discuss the due diligence required and the changes the Transparency Act can make. Up until now the expectation that businesses will respect human rights and the environment has been only a recommendation, not a regulation. ‘The negative impact is on the people and the planet, not on the businesses.’

Ms. Furustøl went on to say that research done by the OECD National Contact Points in 2020 found that only 30% of business leaders had heard of the OECD guidelines and due diligence, while only 3% knew them well. However, the recently passed Supply Chains Transparency Act will mandate that 9,000 companies do their due diligence. Now these companies must demonstrate how they are working on respecting fundamental human rights and decent work, as well as carry out their due diligence. She hopes that this law will serve as an example to other countries.

In closing remarks, Ms. Varma stated that “businesses have an enormous amount of leverage that we don’t have, and we must persuade business that their commitment to change includes a moral obligation. Businesses have a responsibility to actually use their leverage to address those rights.”

Wrapping up the event, Ms. Furustøl echoed these sentiments and reminded the audience that it is not only hard law that will change business practices. A smart mix of voluntary and mandatory actions like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the ETI Base Codes as well as the new Transparency Act is needed. She is hopeful that the developing legislation will bring about even further progress.

Companies are urged to use the ETI-UK/IDSN guidance publication Caste in Global Supply Chains and the Ethical Trade Norway Roadmap for stakeholder engagement to start working on this issue immediately.

Watch the video from the event here: