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Technology & the Law of Corporate Responsibility – The Impact of Blockchain

The following is a guest post by Elizabeth Boomer, a legal research analyst in the Global Legal Research Directorate.

Picture by Susan Taylor-Pikulsky.

Blockchain, a technology regularly associated with digital currency, is increasingly being utilized as a corporate social responsibility tool in major international corporations. This intersection of law, technology, and corporate responsibility was addressed earlier this month at the World Bank Law, Justice, and Development Week 2019, where the theme was Rights, Technology and Development. The law related to corporate responsibility for sustainable development is increasingly visible due in part to several lawsuits against large international corporations, alleging the use of child and forced labor. In addition, the United Nations has been working for some time on a treaty on business and human rights to encourage corporations to avoid “causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities and [to] address such impacts when they occur.”

DeBeers, Volvo, and Coca-Cola, among other industry leaders, are using blockchain, a technology that allows digital information to be distributed and analyzed, but not copied or manipulated, to trace the source of materials and better manage their supply chains. These initiatives have come as welcome news in industries where child or forced labor in the supply chain can be hard to detect, e.g. conflict minerals, sugar, tobacco, and cacao. The issue is especially difficult when trying to trace the mining of cobalt for lithium ion batteries, increasingly used in electric cars, because the final product is not directly traceable to a single source.

While non governmental organizations (NGOs) have been advocating for improved corporate performance in supply chains regarding labor and environmental standards for years, blockchain may be a technological tool that could reliably trace information regarding various products – from food to minerals – that go through several layers of suppliers before being certified as slave- or child labor- free.

Child labor and forced labor are still common in some countries. The majority of countries worldwide have ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 182, prohibiting the worst forms of child labor (186 ratifications), as well as the ILO Convention prohibiting forced labor (No. 29, with 178 ratifications), and the abolition of forced labor (Convention No. 105, with 175 ratifications). However, the ILO estimates that approximately 40 million men and women are engaged in modern day slavery and 152 million children are subject to child labor, 38% of whom are working in hazardous conditions. The enduring existence of forced labor and child labor raises difficult ethical questions, because in many contexts, the victim does not have a viable alternative livelihood.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the ILO have been especially active in trying to find viable solutions for men, women, and children to end child and forced labor.

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