Businesses are being asked to take more and more responsibility for protecting human rights. But should governments really be outsourcing this role to companies?
Wednesday 3 December 2014 14.50 GMT
Scan the headlines about modern day slavery in Qatar, forced labor in Uzbekistan, a ban on trade unions in Swaziland, a draconian anti-gay law in Uganda and widespread economic and social discrimination against women – as well as millions of children who are abused, neglected or exploited – and it is hard to argue that global corporations are being asked to do too much to protect human rights.
And yet as the number of human-rights demands placed on business – and particularly on global companies with supply chains in poor countries – continues to escalate, there’s a risk that governments will be let off the hook. After all, governments are obligated, if not always willing or able, to protect human rights.
This is one of the themes that arose at this week’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, an annual meeting that attracted about 2,000 people from business, government, labor groups and nonprofits to the sprawling Palais de Nations compound in Geneva. The meeting comes three years after the UN endorsed a set of guiding principles on business and human rights, which define the private sector’s responsibilities in broad terms.
One of the difficulties for companies taking on the responsibility of protecting human rights is that the definition of the term “human rights” is infinitely expandable. The UN says it includes labor rights, gender rights, children’s rights, gay rights, cultural rights, freedom of expression, the right to food and water, land rights, indigenous people’s rights, the rights of development and self-determination, all of which are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible. One panel at this week’s conference pondered the question: “Does the world need a human-rights-based convention on healthy diets?”
It’s no wonder some companies duck and hide what they are doing to protect human rights.
A second problem is that many businesses don’t have the expertise or the resources to do much about human rights beyond their own corporate walls and supply chains. Nor are they accountable to the public, as governments should be.
Yet the reality is that in the last decade or so, governments in China, Bangladesh and Indonesia, among other places, have in effect outsourced their labor law enforcement to global corporations. Dozens of retailers and brands have erected extensive and expensive infrastructures of workplace standards, audits, inspections and reports to improve factory conditions – with mixed results, at best. In the long run, it can’t make sense to leave it to Apple and Walmart to guard the rights of factory workers halfway round the world.
That’s not to say, of course, that businesses can’t do more. Several prominent CEOs who spoke at the UN – the ubiquitous Paul Polman of Unilever, Paul Bulcke of Nestle and Bob Collymore of the Kenya-based telecom firm Safaricom – embraced the idea that companies need to do more, not less, on human rights.
“We must work harder to promote human rights, not just respect them,” Polman said. Bulcke pointed with pride to the work that Nestle is doing to help improve the lives of 750,000 farmers in its supply chains. For his part, Collymore talked about providing tablets to help educate thousands of children in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya.
Their efforts were praised by, among others, Sharan Burrow, the feisty general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. But, she noted pointedly, hundreds of millions of poor workers are not fortunate enough to be associated with companies like Unilever. “Today’s global supply chains are characterized by exploitation,” Burrow said.
Burrow urged big companies to work with labor groups and NGOs to press for higher minimum wages in emerging markets. In Cambodia, for instance, the minimum wage was just raised from $100 to $128 per month, but only after a long campaign during which militant workers clashed with police.
Even if responsible companies voluntarily agree to pay more, Burrow said, they can be undercut by less scrupulous competitors. Only the governments can establish a set of rules that apply to all.
Put another way, one of the most important things companies can do to promote human rights is to become more active in the public-policy arena, by lobbying governments to respect human rights—pushing for press and Internet freedom in China, say, or a higher minimum wage in Vietnam.
The trouble is, not many companies are willing to lobby for more regulation, according to Georg Kell, executive director of the UN Global Compact, a corporate sustainability initiative. With a few exceptions, he said, “the big industry associations are still fighting old ideological battles”, opposing any interference with unfettered markets.
What’s more, he said, it’s difficult to get CEOs of big companies to cooperate, even around human rights issues. “It’s not in the mindset of these highly competitive alpha guys.”
That said, cooperative efforts are emerging. The most promising is in Bangladesh where, in response to the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, garment brands and retailers formed a pair of coalitions, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, to improve factory conditions.
Equally important, the US government, European Commission, International Labour Organization and the Bangladeshi government have signed a sustainability compact aimed at, among other things, strengthening labor laws there.
The goal is to duplicate the kinds of government institutions and processes that work reasonably well, most of the time, to protect the human rights of workers in the US and EU.
Business has a role to play. But as Hina Jalani, a veteran Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, reminded the UN group: “It is the fundamental obligation of states to protect citizens against exploitation and degradation.”