Human Rights & Labour rights

Our Code of Business Principles sets out our commitment to human rights. It confirms that “We conduct our operations with honesty, integrity and openness and with respect for the human rights and interests of our employees”.

Our commitment to human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1948, is the cornerstone of modern human rights law. It calls upon “every individual and every organ of society” to promote respect for human rights.

Protecting and fulfilling human rights is the duty of governments, including where it relates to corporate activity. At the same time, businesses have their own responsibility to respect human rights, which means they should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address any adverse impacts in which they are involved.

In line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, we base our human rights commitment and policy on the International Bill of Human Rights (consisting, in addition to the UDHR, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Our approach is to uphold and promote human rights in three ways:

  • in our operations by upholding our values and standards

  • in our relationships with our suppliers and other business partners, and

  • by working through external initiatives, such as the United Nations Global Compact.

Living out our commitments with our employees

Unilever is committed to ensuring that all our employees work in an environment that promotes diversity and where there is mutual trust, respect for human rights and equal opportunity and no unlawful discrimination or victimisation. Our Respect, Dignity and Fair Treatment Code Policy sets out what we and our employees must do to ensure that all workplaces maintain such an environment.

These commitments are of no practical use unless they are part of an active process of compliance, monitoring and reporting. The Board of Unilever is responsible for this process and day-to-day responsibility lies with senior management around the world. Checks are made on this process by Unilever Corporate Audit and by our external auditors.

A review of all policies relating to the Code was undertaken during 2010. A new, streamlined framework of 24 Code Policies that underpin the Code of Business Principles was published and communicated to all senior management and managers globally.

Addressing breaches of our Code

We expect and encourage both our employees and our business partners to speak up and bring to our attention any breach of our Code. A 24-hour toll-free ‘ethics hotline’ number is available in countries for individuals who wish to raise concerns in relation to the Code, on an anonymous basis if they wish (where local laws allow).

Potential breaches of our Code of Business Principles can also be reported either internally to members of local leadership teams or to national Code Officers or externally via telephone, web-portal, fax or email. All reported breaches of the Code of Business Principles are monitored and dealt with by our local business leaders at country level. They are supported by our Head of Risk and Compliance and the Global Code and Policy Committee. Grievances can be raised with either line managers or Human Resources business partners.

Details of Code cases are reported each quarter to the Unilever Leadership Executive. In 2012 we investigated and resolved 540 incidents across all areas of our Code. 40% of these incidents were substantiated and led to some form of sanction, ranging from verbal warning to dismissal or legal action. We dismissed 111 employees, up from 85 in 2011.

In April 2012 we held a meeting for our in-country Code Officers and other colleagues from across the business. Its objective was to underline the importance we attach to our employees feeling able to speak up about issues they are concerned about. To emphasise this message and ensure it is easily accessible, we have posted the presentation and a list of all our Code Policy Officers on our intranet.

In April 2013 we held a global ‘Winning with Integrity’ week which included interviews and a survey on human rights and an article on the importance of our suppliers operating to our standards of behaviour. This was part of our work to ensure that our Codes are understood and adhered to. 

Reviewing our approach – guidelines and training

A previous review showed that further training was needed and that employees would benefit from clearer definitions of elements, such as freedom of association, collective bargaining, forced/bonded labour and child labour. An e-learning module outlining these four core human rights was rolled out to key managers in 2011. In 2012 we delivered training on our Respect, Dignity and Fair Treatment Code to all employees.

Compliance monitoring of our human rights obligations is delivered via our positive assurance process. This is complemented by a system of continuous improvement (akin to the systems we use for safety, health and environment), based primarily on self-assessment at site level and supported by periodic external audits. The self-assessment methodology is designed to be consistent with that used to monitor our suppliers’ compliance with our Supplier Code.

Living out our commitments with our business partners

Our human rights commitment is also reflected in the way we work with our business partners and suppliers. Unilever’s Supplier Code makes clear the standards to which we expect our business partners to adhere. It contains 11 principles covering business integrity and responsibilities relating to employees, consumers and the environment. Four of its principles address human rights, stating that there shall be:

  • respect for human rights, and no employee shall suffer harassment, physical or mental punishment, or other forms of abuse

  • no use of forced or compulsory labour, and employees shall be free to leave employment after reasonable notice

  • no use of child labour, and specifically there will be compliance with relevant International Labour Organization (ILO) standards

  • respect for the right of employees to freedom of association and recognition of employees’ rights to collective bargaining, where allowable by law.

We use a positive assurance process with our suppliers. We have communicated Unilever’s Supplier Code to all our current suppliers of ‘production items’ (ie the raw materials and packaging we use to make our products) to gain their assurance that they adhere to its principles. We follow up with those suppliers we have prioritised with a more detailed assessment and a programme of audits.

By adopting a common approach with some of our peer companies through the Programme for Responsible Sourcing (PROGRESS), we help reduce duplicated effort for members and suppliers alike, accelerate the process of assessing suppliers and free up resources to focus on implementing improvements within the supply chain.

See the Suppliers section for more detail.