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Raise awareness, mobilize forces

martine combemale ONU 630x0“The fight for human rights at work led by Human Resources without Borders (Ressources Humaines Sans Frontières, or RHSF) is based on three fundamental ideas. The first is that there is no need to exploit others’ misery in order to have a good life. The economic and social history of the developed countries that have gradually put an end to disgraceful situations stemming from the industrial revolution testifies to this. We think that, by the same token, the globalized economy can and must eradicate forced labour and child labour.  The second idea is that on issues as complex as these, any approach in black and white terms is doomed to fail. Our role is not to judge or preach, but to understand the situations of all the people involved in the subcontracting chain and lead them all to bring about change in their practices. The third idea is that each party is concerned wherever he or she is in the chain. In another, equally complex, domain, the environment, the COP21 climate conference organized this past autumn in Paris showed that when the civil society and political leaders get organized, concrete progress is possible. So our hope here at RHSF is that an equally strong movement will emerge to enforce international laws and conventions regarding labour.”

Martine Combemale, Director and founder of RHSF


Human Resources without Borders, an international NGO committed to human rights at work


Fille au Panama

Human Resources without Borders (RHSF) is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) created in 2006 in Toulouse. Its founders, Martine Combemale and Jacques Igalens, are corporate social responsibility (CSR) and human resources professionals who have made it their goal to act at a global level to ensure the respect of human rights along the entire subcontracting chain. RHSF is particularly involved in the fight against forced labour, child labour and indecent working conditions.

In search of pragmatic solutions

For the sake of effectiveness, RHSF emphasizes a pragmatic, comprehensive and progressive approach that involves employees, contracting companies and their suppliers, and end consumers, with due respect for local cultures. Its mode of action rests on three key stages: understand, refuse, act.

Far from calling the principle of subcontracting into question, RHSF understands the legitimate interests of each of the actors involved. Its goal is that they all ask themselves the right questions, become aware of the issues at stake in human rights at work, and undertake to improve working conditions in concrete ways.

To do so, RHSF:

- works directly in the field in pilot projects

- provides companies with tools and services that allow them to assess the risks of violating human rights at work and set up a responsible subcontracting chain; these include country maps identifying social risks, analyses of subcontractors’ and suppliers’ practices, strategic audits, evaluations of purchasing policies and specific training programmes.

- conducts research and investigations in the field, enabling it to consolidate its expertise and verify the relevance of its information, for example about child labour on farms

- runs awareness-raising, information and training campaigns for the general public, the media and organizations, through a host of publications, conferences, exhibitions and films.

An international network

With operations in China, India and the United States, RHSF relies on a network of some twenty experts around the world, who bring to it their thorough knowledge of the field.  The association is headed by its founder, Martine Combemale, and has a 9-member international governing board.

Many companies and organizations have sought it out for its expertise, including Petzl, Essilor, Maison du Monde, OECD, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the French Development Agency and the French embassy in China.

Totally independent, the NGO is funded by support services provided to companies, members’ dues and donations. It also receives European funding within the framework of the European Social Fund. Its accounts are certified every year by an auditor.

A few figures

4 employees, 11 active volunteers, 150 members

10 international partner NGOs, including Global Research (India), International Initiative to End Child Labor (United States), RSE & PED (China), Caritas Internationalis and Partners of America (United States).

Human rights at work, a global issue on which everyone can act at their own level

Forced labour, indecent labour, child labour

Fille au Panama 2Forced labour is a scourge that affects 21 million people in the world.  It concerns mainly developing countries, in particular in Asia, but neither Europe, North America nor Australia are spared, as the example of posted workers shows. Forced labour is defined by the ILO as "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily."

Although it is not always simple to detect situations of forced labour, several signs do serve to characterize it:

- lack of free and enlightened consent: workers are given false or incomplete information about the reality of working conditions, they have no contract

- coercion: workers are subject to physical or psychological threats, exorbitant amounts are deducted from their wages, they are obliged to work overtime

- isolation: the workers do not speak the country’s language, are deprived of outside contacts

- lack of autonomy: the workers’ identity papers are confiscated, they are denied control of their bank accounts 

Work under indecent conditions concerns any form of labour that, albeit not strictly speaking forced labour, does not allow employees to lead a life of dignity or satisfy their or their families’ essential needs owing to low wages, excessively long hours, poor health and safety conditions, discrimination or failure to respect social and trade union rights. 

Child labour concerns persons under the age of 15 or 18 (depending upon the criteria adopted) who engage in a work activity. Worldwide, 168 million children under 15 work; of these, 85 million are assigned to hazardous tasks.

These modern forms of exploitation of people by people have endured, despite being condemned by the international community by means of the International Labour Convention (1930), the Forced Labour Convention (1957) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). In 2014, the ILO adopted new measures aimed at preventing forced labour and giving better protection to its victims.

Understanding the subcontracting chain

To combat these morally and humanly disgraceful situations it is not enough to condemn them – we must understand how they originate.  RHSF’s particular focus is the subcontracting chain, a major source of forced labour today, whose malfunctions have been highlighted by a host of particularly tragic scandals and accidents in the past few years, including the revelation that Nike soccer balls are made by Pakistani children, the worker deaths related to World Cup construction sites in Qatar, and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, which housed garment workshops that supplied the leading international brands, killing more than 1000 workers.

This is one of the consequences of globalization: under the combined and sometimes conflicting pressure of their shareholders, competitors, employees and end consumers, companies outsource part of their production to countries where labour is cheap in order to increase their profitability and lower their production costs.

Having become principles, the companies call in subcontractors, who themselves call in subcontractors.

Thus a subcontracting chain is established, in which every higher link exerts pressure on costs and every lower link sees to it that the demands of the contracting companies are met.

This production system creates the conditions for indecent work and forced labour, which at the end of the chain affect first and foremost migrant workers and children, who are more vulnerable, although contractors and consumers do not always realize it. The longer the chain and the greater the number of intermediaries, in particular recruitment agencies, the higher the risk.

Everyone is responsible

Sudden targeted action against forced labour often results in shifting the problem rather than resolving it, if no action has been taken to change mentalities beforehand and if the problem as a whole has not been thought through. RHSF’s ambition is to make it clear to each of the actors who are links in the chain that they have a role to play in changing this system, in the interest of all:

- subcontractors, by adopting a responsible human resources management system

- contractors, by being vigilant when choosing their suppliers and adopting a responsible purchasing policy, for example, avoiding the inclusion in their calls to tender of clauses that are incompatible with decent working conditions. Beyond the CSR policy, it is in companies’ interest to act against forced labour in their subcontracting chain, both for the sake of their reputation and on grounds of legal and financial risk.

- consumers, by always asking themselves what is hidden behind the lowest prices, and also by avoiding fake luxury goods, which are almost always synonymous with child labour.

A few figures

Out of 21 million forced labourers (map):

19 million are exploited by individuals or private companies and 2 million by States. 55% are women, 26% are children.

A few examples of RHSF’s initiatives

China: a responsible human resources management system set up in a subcontractor’s business

entreprise chine

This pilot project was carried out as part of a mission to Petzl, a French SME, and Polyunion, one of its Chinese subcontractors in the region of Shenzhen. The goal was, for the contractor, to promote a responsible procurement policy, and for the subcontractor, to improve its employees’ working conditions without jeopardizing its economic interests. An initial phase involving an analysis of Petzl’s purchasing policy and the country risks, followed by meetings with the stakeholders, enabled RHSF to determine a major issue: how to cut down on the number of hours worked overtime without penalizing wages. Then, together with Polyunion, RHSF examined the subcontractor’s issues, constraints and strategy in order to find avenues for improvement, in accordance with Chinese culture.

To this end, a member of the NGO was posted to the company for 2 years. Ultimately, this initiative made it possible to develop an innovative human resources management system that contributed to reducing the volume of overtime by 50% without a wage decrease whilst increasing productivity by 23%. This project was awarded the 2015 Atlas-AFMI (Association Francophone de management international)-CCMP prize for the best case of international management. In 2016 the project will give rise to a practical guide on solutions for reducing overtime and to training programmes.

An exhibition to raise public awareness

In 2014, in partnership with the Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, RHSF organized a drawing and caricature competition on the theme of forced labour. 120 illustrators hailing from 46 countries participated, submitting powerful, sometimes brutal works that capture the reality of violations of human rights at work. The best drawings were selected by the jury, chaired by the well-known cartoonist Plantu, and were assembled in a travelling exhibition entitled “Behind the Bar Code: human rights at work in the subcontracting chain”, which in 2015 was presented in Paris, Toulouse, Rome (at the Vatican) and New York, at the UN Headquarters. An educational catalogue about forced labour based on the exhibition was published in French, English and Spanish.

The SUSY (Sustainable and Solidarity Economy) project

tisseuse Rumah Gare

This European project was launched to promote the social and solidarity economy as an overall approach for sustainable development and poverty alleviation. For 3 years (2015-2017), a consortium of organizations from 23 countries will be analysing the parties, practices and impact of the social and solidarity economy in 46 European regions and 9 developing countries.

RHSF has been chosen to represent France in the project, and is tasked with studying the Midi-Pyrénées, Languedoc-Roussillon, Aquitaine and Ile-de-France regions and Malaysia.

In 2015, RHSF focused on the good practices (those that have social, societal, economic and environmental impact) of four companies, ATIS, UpCycle, Enercoop and Iés.

In Malaysia, its work concerned an initiative that enables a community of weavers belonging to the Iban people from Borneo (primarily women) to improve its living conditions through the sale of traditional Pua Kumbu fabrics. The work accomplished in the framework of the SUSY project has been described in reports and videos illustrating each of the good practices identified:

This subject is directly related to the promotion of human rights at work insofar as the social and solidarity economy favours short producer-to-consumer circuits, those requiring the fewest possible intermediaries – a worthwhile avenue to explore in the fight against violations.

Practical guide to contributing to the prevention of forced labour

With this guide, put on line on the RHSF website in 2016, tools and resources about forced labour gathered over the past 20 years are being made available to all stakeholders (consumers, representatives of personnel, and companies). This very practical, informative guide will enable users to avoid the traps of forced labour and to detect and prevent risks in the company environment:

RHSF also offers training sessions.

In their own words: personal views of RHSF's work

Mr Li, managing director of Polyunion (China)

“We began working with RHSF through our client Petzl, who helped us set up a CSR policy in our company. We then decided to work directly with RHSF because their great advantage is that they integrate themselves into the company through their staff member who is continually in the field. In this way RHSF takes non-conformities and our difficulties into consideration and understands all our problems. Using its experience and expertise, RHSF enabled us to adapt theoretical models; its help was precious in rolling out the project. RHSF is helping us build and carry out a socially responsible human resources management system in practice. Working with an NGO allowed us to understand our employees better, listen to them, instil confidence in them and listen to ourselves too, while taking the time we needed to achieve our goals.”

François Delattre, ambassador, France’s permanent representative to the United Nations

“It is a pleasure to introduce this important exhibition today. I would like, first of all, to thank Martine Combemale and RHSF for the superb work that has been accomplished with these artists. (…) Organizing a drawing contest on the theme of forced labour was an excellent idea. The drawings are an incentive to face this difficult reality and also to implement more fully the ILO Forced Labour Convention and the additional protocols adopted in Geneva last June.”

(Excerpt from the speech delivered at the opening of the exhibition “Behind the Bar Code” in New York on 16 June 2015.)

Jennifer Pichard, head of the CSR project of Maisons du Monde – furniture and decoration

“Maisons du Monde has been an RHSF member since 2015. As part of our social audit policy, we were looking for assistance in the precise area of human resources. RHSF provided us with tools, in particular country maps identifying risks of forced labour and child labour, as well as risks related to wages, health and safety, which completed our knowledge and enabled us to create our own mapping. Our objective is to help our suppliers adopt good practices.

We have close to 280 suppliers that are considered strategic: it is important for us to identify those whose need for assistance is a matter of priority, to go and see them, meet the managers and workers, and acquire the corporate culture in order to determine a progressive action plan together. Through training it provided during a supplier visit, RHSF helped us to formalize our approach in accordance with a structured framework of analysis. For us, RHSF is a trustworthy partner whose actions have been recognized throughout the year 2015.”

Aurélie Hauchère Vuong, programme officer for the project on forced labour, International Labour Office, Geneva

“RHSF’s approach in the fight against forced labour combines visibility, for the sake of informing the general public and raising its awareness, with more discreet actions, carrying out the groundwork in the field right alongside companies to bring them round to changing their way of working, which is essential, because there are many companies that are willing to do the right thing or to improve.  The initiative of the drawing contest was particularly interesting; I found the quality of the submissions impressive: whether in the register of emotion, reflection or even provocation, one can express very deep things through drawings. We have forged strong ties with the association for the past few years and I am delighted that it has agreed to be a partner of the 50 for Freedom campaign for the ratification of the ILO’s protocol on forced labour.”


The catalogue of the exhibition “Behind the Bar Code”:

Audio training modules about the subcontracting chain:

Report on coffee and banana tree plantations in Panama:

Press contact:

Anna Beauchamp Khlopkova – GIESBERT & Associés

06 88 94 44 42 –