Collaborate to monitor and improve human rights in your supply chains by Laura Compton

We may be a minnow within the Knowledge Quarter’s membership, but LUPC is punching above its weight in sharing knowledge, information and innovation for changing the way organisations buy goods and service without causing harm to others.

To start at the beginning, LUPC is a not-for-profit professional buying organisation that works with and for our members of London-based universities and colleges, as well as national non-profit organisations from the wider arts, cultural, heritage, research and charity sectors. We collaborate with five other regional consortia nationally to deliver over 100 purchasing deals for our memberships to use: everything from legal services and laboratory gases, to temp staff recruitment and tablets.

The principle is simple: by pooling buying power we can collectively go out to the market to save duplication of effort and secure better, more competitive deals. Last year our members spent £204m through our agreements, saving £33m in the process. This is money in the back pocket of members to deliver their core activities – teaching, researching, training, performing, exhibiting, educating, sharing knowledge and broadening horizons.

Indeed, 14 KQ members, including the Francis Crick Institute, the British Library, British Museum, Royal College of General Practitioners, SOAS and Birkbeck are already members of LUPC. Collaboration and knowledge-sharing in the King’s Cross area is not new to us.

In 2014, a presentation at our annual conference by the BMA’s Dr Mahmood Bhutta into the dangerous production of surgical gloves by workers in the developing world raised our awareness of human rights abuses in supply chains. We set objectives to address this in our corporate strategy last year, and now use our profile and position within UK collaborative procurement to sensitise the wider buying community to these issues and use our collective buying power to demand change from our suppliers.

LUPC leads the procurement of desktop and notebook PCs for UK higher education. We also help manage agreements for Apple products, servers, storage and other ICT equipment. Many products are sourced by our distributors from producers in low-cost countries in Asia, Africa and South America, where workers are exposed to harmful materials and chemicals, forced to work excessive hours, and denied access to healthcare or union membership.

With big name brands frequently using the same factories, consumers’ ability to make ethical purchasing choices is limited. And with the average smartphone containing materials from upwards of three continents, and passing through almost 400 hands before reaching the end consumer in the West, the challenge is huge.

LUPC has lobbied our sector to secure the inclusion of new monitoring clauses in agreements for Apple devices to be awarded in 2016, and in the next iteration of the PC and desktop agreement, to be tendered in 2017 and nationally worth £100m per year. Collectively the public sector in the EU spends €94 billion on electronics annually, so it’s a drop in the ocean, but one that we hope will ripple out to influence other organisations in their own tendering.

In 2014, LUPC also invested in becoming a founding member of Electronics Watch, an international, independent monitoring organisation working to achieve respect for labour rights in the global electronics industry.

External monitoring of supply chains is seen by campaigners as the only viable option for improving workers’ rights, as corporate codes of conduct and social auditing practices are failing in transparency and effectiveness. We’re in the vanguard of developing innovative approaches to funding this monitoring, perhaps through a small premium attached to electronics spend that can be used protecting the labour rights, freedoms and health of workers.

Despite not being legally required to do so, LUPC was the first UK organisation to publish a Statement on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking in response to the Modern Slavery Act 2015. We also partnered with academics at the Business, Human Rights and the Environment Research Group (BHRE) at the University of Greenwich, led by Dr Olga Martin-Ortega, who was elected to our Board in 2015. Together we organise events to promote awareness of the risks of electronics supply chains among public procurement professionals, such as our Socially Responsible Public Procurement of Electronic Goods Symposium in December 2015.

In partnership with People & Planet, we have also kick-started the recruitment of students to sit on a sustainability advisory board, designed to give feedback on how to improve workers’ rights in our agreement supply chains for universities. We hope to collaborate with students from across KQ members in this endeavour.

LUPC has taken significant, progressive steps to demonstrate our commitment to social responsibility, which is about much more than writing policy. We are now leading real improvement for people who live and work in and around our supply chains, and look forward to sharing this expertise through the KQ’s Knowledge Bank initiative soon. Will you join us?

What can I do now?

• Support your institution to publish a Statement on Slavery and Human Trafficking. This is a legal requirement for organisations with an annual turnover of £36m, although smaller organisations can make a difference in setting out their expectations of suppliers in this way. LUPC already has a Statement which KQ Members are welcome to adapt and use.
• Join Electronics Watch. LUPC is already a Member, but this isn’t enough to cover the cost of monitoring activities for all of our Members’ spend. Joining sets your organisation apart as progressive and serious in its commitment to protecting human rights.
• Familiarise yourself with the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights. These apply to all businesses regardless of size, structure or location, not least through their procurement activities.
• Identify the highest risk goods and services in your supply chain, and make improvements here first – health and social care; apparel; and electronics are good places to start. It’s also worth considering the profit margin of different brands; improving workers’ conditions costs money and those companies with larger margins may have more room and incentive to make meaningful changes.
• Introduce clauses into new contracts that set out minimum standards and protections for workers (Electronics Watch members can access these readymade). Ensure clauses are enforceable, auditable and demand disclosure of workers’ conditions. Lack of knowledge by suppliers is not an excuse!
• Be willing to publicly challenge false statements by suppliers and fight for change when you find violations, even when this can be awkward. Sharing knowledge with fellow buyers can build your evidence in challenging the practices and reputation of multinational companies.

For more information please contact the author, Laura Compton, via email or on 020 7307 2766

Website image: Delegates from the UK and international public procurement, academia, law and civil society organisations attend LUPC’s Socially Responsible Public Procurement Symposium in December 2015.