The EU Commission’s plan to only protect consumers’ rights ignores all victims of business harm
January 9th, 2018
Civil society organisations call for an EU collective redress mechanism to protect all fundamental human rights.

The Ikebiri community in Nigeria is bringing the Italian oil giant Eni to trial to demand adequate compensation and clean-up of an oil spill made in 2010 by a subsidiary of the company. The first hearing of the case will be held today, January 9.

Meanwhile, European Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová has recently announced plans for a legislative proposal to allow collective redress (also known as “class-actions”) exclusively for consumers. The Commission’s proposal comes in response to the Dieselgate scandal where consumers in the US were able to obtain billions in compensation, whilst those in the EU struggle to obtain anything. But why are other victims of business misconduct excluded from the proposal?

European institutions, civil society, and human rights bodies have been calling for collective redress (also known as “class-actions”) in the EU for nearly a decade to protect all victims of corporate harm, including for violations of fundamental rights connected to the environment, labour, anti-discrimination or privacy. The European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ), together with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Europe, Amnesty International, Client Earth, the European Environmental Bureau, Birdlife, HEAL Health and Environment Advocates, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Corporate Responsibility (CORE) has published a Joint Statement calling for an EU collective redress mechanism to protect all fundamental human rights . The signing organisations call on the EU and its Member States to prepare a legislative proposal for EU collective redress that applies to all instances of harm caused by corporate entities.

The power imbalance between individuals and large companies can effectively block victims of business malpractice from seeking justice, as the costs and risks of litigation are too high for the average individual. Collective redress is a procedure allowing many individuals to group their resources and bring their claims together in a single proceeding against a common defendant, thereby lowering the exorbitant costs of litigation and increasing access to justice and remedy for victims. Harm caused by large corporate entities is varied and diverse, ranging from minor damages that distort competition to serious environmental and human rights violations, for example:

  • 100,000m2 of cyanide were spilled in the Danube river system in the worst European environmental disaster since Chernobyl. Drinking water of over 2.5 million people was contaminated and some regions had up to 80% of the local wildlife die shortly after the spill. Collective redress was not available for the Romanian and Hungarian victims in 2000 and it still wouldn’t be under the Commission’s current proposed legislation. European Environment Agency data indicates there are 28 major industrial accidents in the EU on average per year that cause up to billions of euros of ecological harm.
  • 260 workers producing for the German clothes retailer KiK! were killed in a fire in Pakistan. The building didn’t have fire alarms, emergency exits, or fire extinguishers. German judges accepted jurisdiction in 2016 and granted four individuals legal aid. Now, at the end of 2017, the roughly 400 remaining survivors and relatives are time-barred from bringing more cases, as they were unable to raise the necessary funds in time. Victims of corporate negligence and harm have routinely been unable to join forces in compensation claims.

Collective redress is widely recognised by both international and European human rights bodies , as well as European institutions and a broad cross-section of EU civil society groups. Even the European Commission recommended Member States to implement collective redress mechanisms concerning violations of rights granted under Union Law. The current disharmonised patchwork of collective redress across the EU also means some companies are more easily subjected to class-action litigation than others, depending on where they operate within the Single Market. This is creating an unfair playing field for business.

Justice, fairness, and equality before the law require the protection of all future victims of mass harm situations – not only consumers – by enabling them to join their claims in order to access justice and effective remedy. The Commission should not miss the opportunity and present a legislative proposal for a general collective redress mechanism protecting the rights of the victims of Volkswagen’s malpractice but also of KiK, Eni and many others.