Created in partnership with the Helpdesk on Business & Human Rights

Working Time

Nearly 480 million people work at least 55 hours a week leading to increased risks of workplace accidents, stroke and ischemic heart disease, regardless of the number of normal hours of sleep.

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Due Diligence Considerations

This section outlines due diligence steps that companies can take to prevent working time violations in their operations and supply chains. The described due diligence steps are aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Further information on UNGPs is provided in the ‘Key Human Rights Due Diligence Frameworks’ section below or in the Introduction.

While the below steps provide guidance on working time in particular, it is generally more resource-efficient for companies to ‘streamline’ their human rights due diligence processes by also identifying and addressing other relevant human rights issues (e.g. child labourforced labourdiscriminationfreedom of association) at the same time.

Key Human Rights Due Diligence Frameworks

Several human rights frameworks describe the due diligence steps that businesses should ideally implement to address human rights issues, including working time. The primary framework is the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Launched in 2011, the UNGPs offer guidance on how to implement the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, which establishes the respective responsibilities of Governments and businesses — and where they intersect.

The UNGPs set out how companies, in meeting their responsibility to respect human rights, should put in place due diligence and other related policies and processes, which include:

  • A publicly available policy setting out the company’s commitment to respect human rights
  • Assessment of any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which the company may be involved across its entire value chain
  • Integration of the findings from their impact assessments into relevant internal functions/processes — and the taking of effective action to manage the same
  • Tracking of the effectiveness of the company’s management actions
  • Reporting on how the company is addressing its actual or potential adverse impacts
  • Remediation of adverse impacts that the company has caused or contributed to

The steps outlined below follow the UNGPs framework and can be considered a process which a business looking to start implementing human rights due diligence processes can follow.

Additionally, the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises define the elements of responsible business conduct, including human and labour rights.

Another important reference document is the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration), which contains the most detailed guidance on due diligence as it pertains to labour rights. These instruments, articulating principles of responsible business conduct, draw on international standards enjoying widespread consensus.

Companies can seek specific guidance on this and other issues relating to international labour standards from the ILO Helpdesk for Business. This Helpdesk assists company managers and workers that want to align their policies and practices with principles of international labour standards and build good industrial relations.

Additionally, the SME Compass offers guidance on the overall human rights due diligence process by taking businesses through five key due diligence phases. The SME Compass has been developed in particular to address the needs of SMEs but is freely available and can be used by other companies as well. The tool, available in English and German, is a joint project by the German Government’s Helpdesk on Business & Human Rights and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

1. Develop a Policy Commitment on Working Time

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, a human rights policy should be:

  • “Approved at the most senior level” of the company;
  • “Informed by relevant internal and/or external expertise”;
  • Specific about company’s “human rights expectations of personnel, business partners and other parties directly linked to its operations, products or services”;
  • “Publicly available and communicated internally and externally to all personnel, business partners and other relevant parties”; and
  • “Reflected in operational policies and procedures necessary to embed it throughout the business”.

Businesses should have a policy that details the maximum working hours for workers, including overtime limits and pay. Workers who have their own contracts are likely to have their hours of work stipulated in the contract. However, many workers globally — particularly in global supply chains — will not have contracts, so it is important for businesses to have clear policies on working time that set company expectations.

Businesses should ensure that their policies comply with local laws in their countries of operation, as well as applicable collective bargaining agreements. Where the local law affords limited protection to workers, company policies should include requirements that are in line with ILO standards — for instance offering more rest days or better overtime rates than local law. Some industries and roles will need to have exceptions for certain roles — such as shift workers or night workers — and should ensure these workers’ rights are also protected.

Some companies have integrated their commitments to decent working time into their human rights policies — for example, Heineken. Where companies do not have a human rights policy, working time is often addressed in other documentation, such as a business code of conduct or ethics and/or a supplier code of conduct (e.g. Inditex). For example, Marks and Spencer outlines working time requirements for its food suppliers in the Sustainability Reference Guide for Suppliers.

Businesses may also consider aligning their working time policies with relevant industry-wide or cross-industry policy commitments, for example:

Businesses may want to check the ILO Helpdesk for Business, which provides answers to the most common questions that businesses may encounter while developing their working time policies — or integrating decent working time commitments into other policy documents.

Helpful Resources
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Working HoursA step-by-step guide to improving working time for business in supply chains, including chapter 2.1 ‘Revising policies’.
  • Sedex/Verité, Supplier Workbook: Chapter 1.7 on working hours includes suggestions on what companies should include in their policies on working time.
  • United Nations Global Compact-OHCHR, A Guide for Business: How to Develop a Human Rights Policy: This guidance provides recommendations on how to develop a human rights policy and includes extracts from companies’ policies referencing working time.
  • SME Compass: Provides advice on how to develop a human rights strategy and formulate a policy statement.
  • SME Compass, Policy statement: Companies can use this practical guide to learn to develop a policy statement step-by-step. Several use cases illustrate how to implement the requirements.
  • United Nations Global Compact, Advancing decent work in business through the UN Global Compact Labour Principles: This learning plan, helps companies understand each Labour Principle and its related concepts and best practices as well as practical steps to help companies understand and take action across a variety of issues.


2. Assess Actual and Potential Impacts on Employee Working Time

UNGP Requirements

The UNGPs note that impact assessments:

  • Will vary in complexity depending on “the size of the business enterprise, the risk of severe human rights impacts, and the nature and context of its operations”;
  • Should cover impacts that the company may “cause or contribute to through its own activities, or which may be directly linked to its operations, products or services through its business relationships”;
  • Should involve “meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders” in addition to other sources of information such as audits; and
  • Should be ongoing.

Impact assessments should look at both actual and potential impacts, i.e. impacts that have already manifested or could manifest. This compares to risk assessment that would only look at potential impacts and may not satisfy all of the above criteria.

Understanding the causes of excessive working hours or overtime is key to addressing the problems and their impacts on workers. This should involve stakeholder participation — including workers, managers and industry representatives in impact assessment studies.

Impact assessments may need to be handled sensitively as some workers may be choosing to work excessive hours or additional overtime due to personal circumstances (such as being the sole provider for a family). Alternatively, some workers may be working excessive hours against their will, under conditions of bonded or forced labour. Discussions with workers, therefore, need to be mindful of these risks to make sure workers are not put at risk or embarrassed to speak about their experiences.

Working time can be addressed in a specific impact assessment or combined with a broader human/labour rights impact assessment (e.g. NestléUnilever and Lidl). Some companies may also choose to conduct a desk-based risk assessment on the likelihood and prevalence of working time violations in their countries of operation and supply chain, which may be helpful to understand a company’s exposure to these risks but may not fully meet the requirements of the UNGPs — including, for example, the requirement to engage with potentially affected stakeholders.

Helpful Resources
  • ILO, Working Conditions Laws Database: This online database provides information on the regulatory environment for working conditions — including working time — in over 100 countries.
  • ILO, Working Time Laws: A Global Perspective. Findings From the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Employment Database: This report provides a comparative analysis of global working time laws, including examining main elements of working time regulation, normal and maximum working hours, overtime work, rest periods and annual holidays.
  • ILO, Labour Standards in Supply Chains: How to Meet Them to Become More Competitive and Sustainabledetailed guide on labour rights, including section 4 on working hours and how to understand excessive working hours causes and impacts.
  • ILO, Statistics on Working Time: collection of data on working time in different countries.
  • OECD, Hours Worked: collection of data on working time in OECD countries.
  • CSR Risk Check: tool allowing companies to check which international CSR risks (including related to excessive working time) businesses are exposed to and what can be done to manage them. The tool provides tailor-made information on the local human rights situation as well as environmental, social and governance issues. It allows users to filter by product/raw material and country of origin. The tool was developed by MVO Netherland; the German version is funded and implemented by the German Government’s Helpdesk on Business & Human Rights and UPJ.
  • SME Compass: Provides advice on how to assess actual and potential human rights risks and how to assess and prioritize risks.
  • SME Compass, Risk Analysis Tool: This tool helps companies to locate, asses and prioritize significant human rights and environmental risks long their value chains.
  • SME Compass, Supplier review: This practical guide helps companies to find an approach to manage and review their suppliers with respect to human rights impacts.

3. Integrate and Take Action on Working Time

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, effective integration requires that:

  • “Responsibility for addressing [human rights] impacts is assigned to the appropriate level and function within the business enterprise” (e.g. senior leadership, executive and board level);
  • “Internal decision-making, budget allocations and oversight processes enable effective responses to such impacts”.

The results of the impact assessment should be used to prioritize improvement actions throughout the business and in supply chains. Actions within own operations may include:

  • Hiring more employees to reduce the burden of work on the current employees;
  • Introducing flexible working hours (e.g. Delland Unilever);
  • Supporting workers who might otherwise be compelled to work excessive hours — for example, Avivahas become a Living Hours Employer in the UK, which means low-wage workers have additional protections, such as pay for shifts cancelled outside of an agreed notice period and guaranteed pay for each working week; and
  • Analysing production processes, together with workers, to find inefficiencies and areas for improvement.

Whilst taking action on working time may increase costs at first, this may be compensated via increased productivity, which in turn can reduce the need for long working hours. Investing in improving productivity can ultimately benefit workers and result in cost savings for companies.

With regard to supply chains, companies should review their own procurement and ordering practices (going beyond supplier audits) to reduce excessive overtime. Tight lead times, late sample approval and last-minute alterations to product specification put increased pressure on factories to deliver orders by resorting to overtime. On the other hand, poor processes and a low-skilled workforce in supplier factories with high employee turnover may result in low efficiency of production, long overtime hours and low pay.

Setting realistic lead times and sticking to an agreed timescale should be complemented by building suppliers’ capacity to improve productivity and efficiency. These measures could help reduce working time in supply chains without an impact on workers’ wages. This, however, requires a different procurement approach — one that is based not only on cost reduction and compliance but also on long-term capability development. For example, Gap has introduced the Better Buying initiative to address the impact its buying practices have on garment manufacturers’ working time.

Helpful Resources
  • ILO, Guide to Developing Balanced Working Time Arrangements: A ‘how to’ manual for business and Government bodies for creating working time arrangements that are beneficial for employees and businesses.
  • ILO/International Training Centre (ITC), Working Times and Teleworking: This free course familiarizes companies with the concept of decent working time and how to design and implement working time arrangements collaboratively.
  • ILO, Labour Standards in Supply Chains: How to Meet Them to Become More Competitive and Sustainabledetailed guide on labour rights, including section 4 on working hours, which has a helpful self-assessment on working time practices for businesses.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Working HoursA step-by-step guide to improving working time for business in supply chains, including chapter 2.2 ‘Updating procedures’, chapter 2.3 ‘Training and communication’, chapter 2.4 ‘Implementation in practice’ and chapter 2.5 ‘Documentation’.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Guide to Buying ResponsiblyGuidance for companies on purchasing practices, drawing on the findings of a collaborative supplier survey run in partnership between the Ethical Trading Initiatives and the ILO, with support from Sedex. This guide includes best practice examples and outlines five key business practices that influence wages and working conditions, including excessive overtime.
  • Sedex/Verité, Supplier WorkbookChapter 1.7 on working hours includes suggestions on how companies can achieve and maintain high working time standards within their supply chains.
  • Impactt Limited, The Impactt Overtime Project: Tackling Supply Chain Labour Issues through Business Practice: This report summarizes the results of a collaborative project in China, which aimed to reduce excessive overtime without reducing wages, through building the factories’ own capacity to improve productivity, human resources management and internal communication.
  • United Nations Global Compact, Decent Work Toolkit for Sustainable Procurement: This toolkit enables companies, procurement professionals and suppliers to develop a common understanding on how to advance decent work through purchasing decisions and scaling up efforts to improve lives around the globe.
  • SME Compass: Provides advice on how to take action on human rights by embedding them in your company, creating and implementing an action plan, and conducting a supplier review and capacity building.
  • SME Compass, Identifying stakeholders and cooperation partners: This practical guide is intended to help companies identify and classify relevant stakeholders and cooperation partners.
  • SME Compass, Standards Compass: This online tool offers guidance on what to pay attention to when selecting sustainability standards or when participating in multi-stakeholder initiatives. It allows comparing standards and initiatives with respect to their contribution to human rights due diligence and their potential limitations.

4. Track Performance on Working Time

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, tracking should:

  • “Be based on appropriate qualitative and quantitative indicators”;
  • “Draw on feedback from both internal and external sources, including affected stakeholders” (e.g. through grievance mechanisms).

Tracking working time can be done in several ways. Firstly, requesting time sheets or logs from employees gives an indication of working time. However, these may be falsified to hide longer working time. Secondly, it may be helpful to speak to workers in interviews or focus groups. Additionally, multi-stakeholder groups can shed light on working time and practices as workers may not feel comfortable speaking about their hours alone, but more confident when in a group with other workers and civil society or union representatives.

Audits and social monitoring are common ways to check performance in the first tier of the supply chain (e.g. Unilever and Cisco). Such monitoring or audits can be undertaken internally by the company or a third party. A common approach or first step taken by companies is to issue self-assessment questionnaires (SAQs) to suppliers, requesting information and evidence on their working hours. Repeated SAQs can give insight into improvements in supplier management systems and let suppliers self-report on actual or potential impacts.

Where SAQ results warrant it, companies can carry out on-the-ground or (particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic) remote suppliers audits. Common supplier audit frameworks that span most industries and include working time indicators include SMETA audits and SA8000 accredited audits.

If shortcomings are identified, corrective action plans (CAPs) should be developed jointly with the supplier, setting out clear targets and milestones for improvement. Progress should then be tracked regularly to ensure CAP completion. Setting SMART targets helps objectively track performance. SMART targets are those that are: specific, measurable, attainable, resourced and time-bound. Responsibility for data collection should be clearly allocated to relevant roles within the company and reported with a set frequency (for instance once a month).

Although both SAQs and audits are commonly used by companies in various industries, both tools have limitations in their ability to uncover hidden violations, including violations of working time. Unannounced audits somewhat mitigate this problem but even these are not always effective at identifying violations, given that an auditor tends to spend only limited time on-site. Furthermore, human rights violations, including excessive working hours, often happen further down supply chains, whereas audits often only cover ‘Tier 1’ suppliers.

New tools such as technology-enabled worker surveys/‘worker voice’ tools allow real-time monitoring and partly remedy the problems of traditional audits. An increasing number of companies complement traditional audits with ‘worker voice’ surveys (e.g. Unilever and VF Corporation), which can be easily adapted to different languages to accommodate workers’ needs.

Some companies go further and adopt ‘beyond audit’ approaches, which are built on proactive collaboration with suppliers rather than on supplier monitoring (‘carrots’ rather than ‘sticks’). Collaborating with other stakeholders, including workers’ organizations, law enforcement authorities, labour inspectorates and non-governmental organizations to proactively identify, remediate and prevent violations of working time can also prove to be effective in tracking performance on working time. Partnering with other stakeholders to design an effective monitoring mechanism will allow companies to better track progress.

Helpful Resources
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Working Hours: A step-by-step guide to improving working hours for business in supply chains, including chapter 2.6 ‘Monitoring implementation and impact’.
  • Sedex/Verité, Supplier Workbook: Chapter 1.7 on working hours includes suggestions on how companies can monitor working time in their supply chains.
  • SME Compass: Provides advice on how to measure human rights performance.
  • SME Compass: Key performance indicators for due diligence: Companies can use this overview of selected quantitative key performance indicators to measure implementation, manage it internally and/or report it externally.

5. Communicate Performance on Working Time

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, regular communications of performance should:

  • “Be of a form and frequency that reflect an enterprise’s human rights impacts and that are accessible to its intended audiences”;
  • “Provide information that is sufficient to evaluate the adequacy of an enterprise’s response to the particular human rights impact involved”;
  • “Not pose risks to affected stakeholders, personnel or to legitimate requirements of commercial confidentiality”.

Companies are expected to communicate their performance on working time in a formal public report, which can be achieved via companies’ broader sustainability or human rights reporting (e.g. UnileverCisco and Nike), or in their annual Communication on Progress (CoP) in implementing the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact. Additionally, other forms of communication may include in-person meetings, online dialogues and consultation with affected stakeholders.

Helpful Resources
  • UNGP Reporting Framework: A short series of smart questions (‘Reporting Framework’), implementation guidance for reporting companies, and assurance guidance for internal auditors and external assurance providers.
  • United Nations Global Compact, Communication on Progress (CoP): The CoP ensures further strengthening of corporate transparency and accountability, allowing companies to better track progress, inspire leadership, foster goal-setting and provide learning opportunities across the Ten Principles and SDGs.
  • The Sustainability Code: A framework for reporting on non-financial performance that includes 20 criteria, including on human rights and employee rights.
  • SME Compass: Provides advice on how to communicate progress on human rights due diligence.
  • SME Compass, Target group-oriented communication: This practical guide helps companies to identify their stakeholders and find suitable communication formats and channels.

6. Remedy and Grievance Mechanisms

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, remedy and grievance mechanisms should include the following considerations:

  • “Where business enterprises identify that they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts, they should provide for or cooperate in their remediation through legitimate processes”.
  • “Operational-level grievance mechanisms for those potentially impacted by the business enterprise’s activities can be one effective means of enabling remediation when they meet certain core criteria.”

To ensure their effectiveness, grievance mechanisms should be:

  • Legitimate: “enabling trust from the stakeholder groups for whose use they are intended, and being accountable for the fair conduct of grievance processes”
  • Accessible: “being known to all stakeholder groups for whose use they are intended, and providing adequate assistance for those who may face particular barriers to access”
  • Predictable: “providing a clear and known procedure with an indicative time frame for each stage, and clarity on the types of process and outcome available and means of monitoring implementation”
  • Equitable: “seeking to ensure that aggrieved parties have reasonable access to sources of information, advice and expertise necessary to engage in a grievance process on fair, informed and respectful terms”
  • Transparent: “keeping parties to a grievance informed about its progress, and providing sufficient information about the mechanism’s performance to build confidence in its effectiveness and meet any public interest at stake”
  • Rights-compatible: “ensuring that outcomes and remedies accord with internationally recognized human rights”
  • A source of continuous learning: “drawing on relevant measures to identify lessons for improving the mechanism and preventing future grievances and harms”

Many businesses have grievance processes that encompass multiple human and labour rights issues. Grievance mechanisms should be designed to accommodate the needs of workers, and so should be made available in the languages of workers and in accessible formats. Workers may not feel able to report issues to their managers or superiors and should be able to report concerns via other means, such as telephone hotlines or websites. Worker voice technologies are becoming popular ways to empower workers to report violations of their rights. Unions or local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can also represent effective grievance mechanisms if they are accessible and trusted by workers.

Where businesses find they have overworked employees in their operations or contributed to overwork in their supply chain, remedy must be made. Companies must provide comprehensive remedy that provides missing overtime pay, time-off in lieu of excess hours worked previously, as well as altering contracts and company operating practices so that excessive hours cannot happen again. For example, according to its FLA re-accreditation report, over the period of 2008-2018, Nike has remediated 19 of 21 overtime violations, as well as three out of three violations in which workers were provided no rest day within a seven-day period.

Helpful Resources
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Access to Remedy: Practical Guidance for Companies: This guidance explains key components of the mechanisms that allow workers to submit complaints and enable businesses to provide remedy.
  • Global Compact Network Germany, Worth Listening: Understanding and Implementing Human Rights Grievance Management: A business guide intended to assist companies in designing effective human rights grievance mechanisms, including practical advice and case studies.
  • SME Compass: Provides advice on how to establish grievance mechanisms and manage complaints.
  • SME Compass, Managing grievances effectively: Companies can use this guide to design their grievance mechanisms more effectively – along the eight UNGP effectiveness criteria – and it includes practical examples from companies.