Although these sections focus on the legal framework and cases in Europe, the United States and Canada, other jurisdictions have also shown to have a progressive approach to the question of responsibility of businesses for extraterritorial violations of human rights, such as in Brazil.
Bazilian courts in action
Odebrecht – Biocom Angola 1
In March 2014, the Brazilian multinational “Odebrecht” was notified by the Brazilian Government of allegations of slave labour conditions in Angola at the site of construction of a plant for Biocom, an Angolan company partly owned by Odebrecht. Subsequently, the Brazilian Prosecutor General filed a lawsuit before the labour court of Araraquara, Brazil, in June 2015 accusing Odebrecht of human trafficking and of maintaining Brazilian workers in slave-like labour conditions. 2
The case resulted in the conviction of the Odebrecht Group on the basis of article 3 of the Brazilian law regulating the situation of Brazilian workers or workers transferred by their employers abroad. According to this legal provision, the person responsible for the labour contract shall ensure the respect of the worker’s rights protected under Brazilian law, regardless of the legal standards applicable in the state where the worker is located. The court considered that in the case of employees transferred to work abroad, all the companies involved in the transaction are bound to ensure conditions of dignity and comfort at work as per Brazilian labour law. Having investigated Biocom’s plant construction site in Angola, the court concluded that the lack of adequate hygiene, health and safety conditions amounted to degrading working conditions, which violated workers’ dignity and subjected them to suffering, especially considering they were not in their home country.
The court ordered the company to pay 50 million reais (US 13 million) in damages to 500 workers.
Zara, one of the brands owned by Inditex, the world’s largest clothing retailer in terms of number of stores, sources its products from a large network of suppliers throughout the world. In 2011 the Brazilian labour inspection authorities found violations of human rights in Zara’s supply chain, whereby “orders from Zara ended up at illegal workshops, where undocumented immigrants from Bolivia and Peru were working and living under inhumane conditions.” 3 The Brazilian authorities reached an agreement with Zara who committed to carry out stronger monitoring and inspections on its suppliers. However, more recent reports from the labour inspection authorities identified continuing violations of workers’ rights committed by Zara’s suppliers, such as excessive overtime and occupational health and safety violations. 4 As a consequence, Zara risks being included in the so-called ’dirty list’ of Brazil’s labour and employment ministry, which indicates the companies where slave-like conditions have been found. In response, Zara initiated a constitutional action contesting the constitutionality of this list. 5
Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation (Vietnam)
In April 2016, approximately 300 tonnes of fish died in four provinces of the North Central Region of Vietnam: Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue. After investigation, the Vietnam National Assembly Report identified the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group (FPG), in the Vung Ang Economic Zone in Vietnam to be the primary culprit in the pollution incident, which caused the disastrous marine pollution by discharging wastewater that contained toxic substances, such as phenol and cyanide, into the sea. On June 30, 2016, Formosa publicly admitted responsibility for the environmental pollution, that affected up to 125 miles of Vietnam’s central coastline and harmed the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, including 41,000 fisherfolk 6 . At the same time, the company was ordered to pay 500 million US dollar in compensation to the government. But very few victims received compensation, and in any case, this settlement remains insufficient to fully compensate for the full scope of the damage.
NGO Justice for Formosa Victims has gathered testimony and affidavits from dozens of individuals, primarily in the affected regions of Central Vietnam, who experienced and witnessed state crackdowns connected to the Formosa case. These crackdowns have taken many forms, including targeted violence against peaceful demonstrators, arbitrary arrests and detention of hundreds of critics and protesters on trumped up charges, and weaponization of the judicial system to silence dissenters with long prison sentences 7 . This systematic crackdown, which is a frequent reaction of Vietnam’s authoritarian regime, has been repeatedly condemned by international organisations and independent NGOs.
On June 11, 2019, 7,875 Vietnamese victims submitted a transnational lawsuit in Taiwan against Formosa Plastics Group, to the Taipei District Court. The plaintiffs alleged that the marine pollution provoked by the company caused damage and endangered their physical health 8 , arguing that the plaintiffs have the right to health and to a healthy environment. They further claimed that in Vietnam their freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, right to information were not respected, putting them at risk if they started a lawsuit in Vietnam.
In October 2019, the Court rejected the claim for lack of jurisdiction since the case involved Vietnamese nationals and occurred in Vietnam. On October 24, 2019, the plaintiffs appealed to the Taiwan Taipei High Court but the appeal was once again rejected in March 2020. The plaintiffs thus brought the decision to the Supreme court, which concluded in November 2020 that, since Formosa Plastics, the mother company of Formosa Ha Tinh Steel is headquartered in Taiwan, the Taiwanese courts has jurisdiction to deal with this case. Accordingly, the judgment of the High Court of Taiwan was set aside and remanded to this instance which eventually ruled in favour of the victims in April 2021, agreeing on jurisdiction over Taiwan-based defendants, including Formosa Plastics Group. However, the High Court judges refused to include among the defendants Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, which is the entity the most directly linked to the discharge of wastewater which caused the marine pollution. The plaintiffs have therefore appealed the ruling to the Taiwan Supreme Court and they now hope that the judges will rule in their favour so that a substantial trial can take place at the Taipei District Court.