Human Rights Guidance Tool for the Financial Sector
Key Issues and Questions

Core Operations

Identifying the human rights issues and expectations relevant to business
(based on internationally recognised standards and voluntary initiatives)

Workplace conditions

Workplace conditions include factors such as working hours, wages, health and safety and disciplinary practices.

What are the main issues?

Working hours

  • Working excessively long hours can have a negative impact on quality and productivity and increases the risk of accidents in the workplace
  • Workers may wish to work some overtime, for example if they are living away from home with the aim of sending money to their families
  • Pressure to work long hours may arise from customer demands. For example, assignments need to be completed to a deadline despite time lost or work being added to the initial specification - workers may then be required to work unreasonable overtime
  • Systems based on piecework (where payment is based on the output of the worker) may lead to long working hours
  • Overtime should be voluntary and should be paid at a higher rate
  • The company should at the minimum be aware and in compliance with local law related to working hours, and where possible, strive to meet the highest available standards; the company working hour policies should be clearly communicated to employees.


  • Wages should provide all workers, as a minimum, with a decent living for themselves and their families
  • Calculating what wage will provide a decent living can be very difficult, and in some places (particularly in big cities) the official minimum wage may not constitute a fair wage
  • A fair wage enables a worker to earn enough in a working week to meet all their basic needs and those of their dependants plus some discretionary income - they should not have to work overtime just to achieve this minimum standard of living
  • There may be a legally defined national or regional minimum wage, in which case workers should receive at least this amount
  • Some countries may also have a Living Wage in place.

Health and Safety

  • As far as possible, hazards to health and safety in the workplace should be removed
  • If it is not possible to remove them completely, then the work should be done in a way that minimises the risk to the worker — for example by ensuring that equipment has safety devices in place, that workers are properly trained to use the equipment, that they are properly supervised, and that appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided free of charge and used properly
  • Effective health and safety prevention and remediation policies and procedures, in compliance with international standards (as a minimum) should be adopted
  • Effective procedures and process for reviewing and responding to health and safety complaints should be in place
  • In addition, employees at greater risk of injury (due to disability, age, pregnancy or lack of experience for example) should have access to further support if required
  • All accidents should be properly recorded, including fatal and lost time accidents

Disciplinary practices

  • These should not involve fines as this may detract from workers' ability to earn a fair wage
  • Workers should not be threatened with severe punishments, which could be regarded as mental coercion
  • No corporal punishment, physical or mental coercion, or verbal abuse should be used to discipline workers
  • Workers should not be disciplined for raising concerns (whistle blowing) in good faith
  • There should be written disciplinary procedures and process
  • There should be an independent or non-line management complaint mechanism.


Discrimination is treating a worker or prospective worker less favourably than another on such grounds as race, caste, tribe, ethnic origin, nationality, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, union membership, political affiliation, language, mental and physical disability, opinion, health status (including HIV/Aids) or age.

Discrimination may occur in recruitment, during work or when terminating contracts with workers.

What are the main issues?


  • In hiring new staff, companies should use objective and transparent criteria to avoid direct discrimination
  • There are particular types of employment where age or gender may be relevant criteria but these are rare exceptions

During work

  • Workers should get equal access to training, promotion and benefits such as holidays, time off to practice their religion and sickness pay
  • Workers should be paid the same for the same work performed
  • Workers should not be required as a matter of course to take pregnancy/HIV tests
  • Places of work may need to be adapted to enable people with disabilities to work
  • Some workers may be subjected to harassment and abuse (mental or physical) by other workers as a result of difference (eg: race, religion, disability). Companies should take steps to prevent this and ensure that any alleged incidents are dealt with appropriately
  • Workers should not be discriminated against for whistle blowing (raising issues of concern in good faith with management or designated third parties)
  • The working environment should recognise the needs of different cultures and be respectful of different cultural or religious practices
  • Companies should respect the privacy of workers and should ensure that personal information is properly safeguarded

Redundancy and dismissal

  • When workers leave a company through redundancy, the selection of workers should be based on objective criteria (such as length of service)
  • When workers leave a company as a result of dismissal, the decision to dismiss the worker should be based on objective criteria relating to his/her performance in the workplace
  • Decisions to dismiss a member of staff should be made fairly and over an appropriate period of time, allowing the worker an opportunity to improve their performance if this is a relevant consideration
  • There should be an independent and objective complaints and disciplinary process and procedure

Child labour

In international standards child labour refers to any work by a child younger than 15 years (unless local law specifies a higher age for work or compulsory schooling, in which case the higher age applies). In accordance with International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions, a lower limit has been set at 14 years for certain countries under exceptional circumstances or 13 in case of specific activities if allowed by national laws. The minimum age for admission to any type of employment or work which may risk the health and safety of young people should in principle be at least 18 years.

What are the main issues?

Risks to children

Problems can arise from the employment of children in the workplace such as:

  • Loss of educational opportunity
  • Exploitation of children who work for low/no wages
  • Exposure of children to physical and mental damage including hazardous materials and dangerous situations (including chemicals to which they are more vulnerable than adults, dangerous machinery, and heavy equipment)

Minimum age

  • Companies should monitor whether children are employed in their business or supply chain
  • Companies should request proof of age when recruiting
  • Companies should adopt a written policy which prohibits child labour and include such conditions in procurement contracts

Working hours and conditions of employment

  • Further to establishment of compliance with legal employment age, companies should monitor the hours and conditions of employment of children
  • Companies should take all appropriate measures to promote the physical and psychological recovery of a child as a result of accident, illness or exploitation.

Employment of young workers

  • Young workers refers to workers who are under the age of 18
  • Young workers should not be employed at night
  • Young workers should not be employed in hazardous conditions
  • Companies should consider whether work that is appropriate for older workers is hazardous for young workers (eg because of the machinery that is used, or the skills or strength needed to carry out tasks)

Worst forms of child labour

Particular types of work have been identified as the worst forms of child labour in the UN's 'Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999'. These are:

  • All forms of slavery - this includes the trafficking of children, debt bondage, serfdom, forced and compulsory labour, and the use of children in armed conflict
  • The use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic purposes
  • The use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular the production and trafficking of illegal drugs
  • Work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of the child as a consequence of its nature or the circumstances under which it is carried out

Forced or compulsory labour

Forced or compulsory labour includes any work or service that is exacted from any person under the threat of a financial penalty or physical or mental harm or where the person has not entered voluntarily into an employment contract. Examples include:

  • slave labour
  • indentured labour
  • bonded labour
  • involuntary labour
  • involuntary prison labour.

With certain limitations on age, time and procedure, exceptions may apply (such as emergency work, communal work and military work as part of compulsory military service). Compulsory work should be remunerated.

What are the main issues?

Prison labour

Prison labour should be voluntary and prisoners should be paid. Two general conditions must be met to demonstrate the voluntary nature of the employment relationship:

  • The formal consent of the prisoner
  • Payment of wages and social security benefits that reflect conditions similar to those in the free market

Deposits and papers

If workers are required to pay a deposit (eg for equipment, a uniform or use of dormitories), or if their travel documents or identity papers are held, this can prevent workers from leaving their employment freely. This practice should be avoided.

Forced overtime

If workers are required to do overtime and to remain on work premises by companies, this can amount to forced labour. This can also arise when workers are obliged to remain working as a result of threats, violence or the direct risk of losing their employment. This practice should be avoided.

Trafficking of workers

Sometimes workers are transported away from their communities and forced to work on particular sites. In such circumstances it is often the case that they cannot leave the employment until a debt has been paid to the company or to an organisation connected to the company. In some jurisdictions, there are licensing systems in place for gang masters, to prevent trafficking and ensure reasonable conditions for workers. Trafficking of workers should not be allowed.

Freedom of association and collective bargaining

Workers should be free to join a trade union of their choice and to bargain collectively on wages, benefits and working conditions without fear of harassment or intimidation.

What are the main issues?

Freedom to associate and to bargain collectively

Companies should allow workers to participate in trade unions or similar bodies for the purpose of ensuring their voice is heard in relation to employment conditions. Linked to this, companies should take steps to ensure that trade unionists are not at risk of persecution or attack by other employees or government officials. Workers should also have the right to bargain collectively if they so choose.

Conflict with local law

In some countries, trade unions are illegal. In such cases, companies should establish alternative measures to allow employees to gather independently to discuss work related matters - eg through a 'workers council' or health and safety committee to which workers are elected.

Tackling issues in core operations

  • Working conditions - employees working conditions should be of an appropriate standard
  • Training - providing training courses for employees and managers to ensure they understand the issues
  • Developing relevant policies and procedures - if they are implemented throughout the company this will help to ensure that human rights abuses do not occur
  • Communication with employees - regular communication will help to ensure that employees are kept up-to-date with issues and policies.


December 2014     United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative