“The rights of every person are diminished when the rights of one person are threatened.” 
― John F. Kennedy

The words of JF Kennedy holds true value in the present scenario of Business and human rights across the world. A worker’s rights are his/her entitlements and when we violate them, the ethics of the organization gets dwindled. Human rights in business is highly unavoidable because shareholders, investors, governments and civil society expect companies to respect human rights. Business without human rights and social responsibilities is like a bird without a wing. Business cannot upswing unless companies adhere to global standards of human rights and code of conducts. They need to address labor issues and human rights violations strategically. Companies are increasingly held accountable on human rights performance in their daily operations, supply chains and business relationships.

Global Business

The UN Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights and an excellent point of reference for companies to follow. The document has the views of all regions of the world, with the aim of protecting the fundamentals of human rights. Further, the UN Guiding Principles reinforces the three aspects of ‘Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” for workers framework, which were developed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and global business enterprises.

Keeping this background in mind, we need to ensure that business enterprises look at these important three aspects of protecting workers rights, respecting human dignity and have a solid remediation plan of action. Companies when looking at their social and developmental aspect of their workers seriously and address issues like labor rights in their respective global supply chains, it gives a strong impetus to their business models. A company which is fully compliant and gives dignity and respect its workers will definitely fair pretty strong in global rankings. 

The issue of human rights is also central to good corporate citizenship. Many companies find strength in their human rights records; others suffer the consequences of ignoring this vital part of corporate life. Today, human rights is a key performance indicator for companies all over the world. Just as technology reshapes our world, there is also a need to maintain the human dimension of our work, and a company’s sense of its social responsibility. Harmonizing economic growth with the protection of human rights is one of the great challenges we face today. It is a challenge which, if met, can harness the great power of economic growth to the great principle of human dignity. This will help investors and stakeholders to engage and invest in such companies.

Companies need to engage with various stakeholders in addressing this need and work in tandem with the States and governments. Business corporations and associations have a responsibility to protect against human rights abuse within their territory. This requires taking appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress such abuse through effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication.

In recent decades, fashion brands and retailers in the West have introduced a supplier’s Codes of Conduct (COC) to strengthen international labor standards in their supply chain. Codes of conduct and guidelines are at par with the UN Convention on business and Human rights and suppliers have to take this seriously.

Global Supply Chains

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that the number of jobs linked with global supply chains in 40 countries increased from 296 million in 1995 to 453 million in 2013. This represents more than one-fifth of the global workforce. For many workers, jobs in global supply chains mean precarious work, low wages and inhumane working hours.

The expansion of global supply chains has been driven by a business model expressly designed to take advantage of low wages and inadequate regulation and enforcement. Research shows that respect for workers’ rights in supply chains is declining. Cases on forced and bonded labor, migration, child labor, absence of statutory minimum wage, sexual harassment and precarious working conditions are some of the issues that are on rise.

In the garment industry, there was a 73 percent drop in the workers’ rights score of the top 20 apparel exporters to the US between 1989 and 2010.
At the same time, there was a 42 percent reduction in the price paid for the clothes they produced. (Source: http://www.industriall-union.org/workers-rights-in-global-supply-chains-holding-companies-accountable)

The UN Guiding Principles make it clear that MNCs are responsible for working conditions in their supply chains. Yet many MNCs claim to have little control, or even knowledge, of how much workers are paid, the hours they work, their health and safety or their employment contracts. 

Harassment and Abuse

High production targets, abuse of supervisors on the sweat floors, sexual harassment, suicides of young workers, freedom of movement and exploitation of the migrant workers in the supply chains of south Asia and southeast Asia is predominantly a very grave situation. Global brands and companies have to look into their supply chains, engage with the right and credible CSO’s and unions to address these issues strategically. In fact, the sourcing models designed by companies to maximize their profits are the direct cause of many of the abuses experienced by workers. Further, short lead times, production targets, abusive behavior of managers, last-minute changes to product specifications, ramp-ups for new product launches and general lack of consideration of how sourcing decisions impact on workers are major impediments to improving workers’ rights in global supply chains.

Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining 

Freedom of association is a universally recognized and protected human right, and a core ILO value. It is related to the right to collective bargaining, which allows workers to negotiate working conditions freely with their employers. Ultimately business corporations and associations have to engage with workers unions and workers federations to work together addressing labor rights issues in the global supply chains. Workers at all stages of global supply chains have the right to ask why their pay and conditions are so poor. They are making products or contributing services for companies that rake in massive profits and could well afford to guarantee all workers in their supply chains a decent pay and decent standard of living.

Stakeholder Engagement

One of the most crucial principles of Business and Human Rights is stakeholder engagement. Business is about relationships and engagements. Strategic collaboration with diverse stakeholders, including the government, CSO’s, trade unions, research organizations and all other relevant business and human rights network. Engagement is an ongoing process and one planning a sustainable stakeholder engagement process is the utmost need for companies. 

Some of the important steps that one needs to keep in mind 

  • Initial identification of issues through human rights impact assessment
  • Assessment of human rights risks
  • Prioritization of human rights issues
  • Development of action plans
  • Strategic direction at the board level
  • Integration of human rights into internal compliance mechanisms, having codes of conduct and operational policies
  • Providing training to employees (and in some cases to other stakeholders on human rights perspective building)
  • Ensuring that there are effective grievance mechanisms.
  • Establishment and functional maternity benefits, sexual harassment committees and childcare practices.

References

Human Rights Due Diligence in Law and Practice: Good Practices and Challenges for Business Enterprises

Human rights due diligence in law & practice: Good practices & challenges for business enterprises

Business and Human Rights: A Progress Report

About the Author

Ms. Subhadra Gupta is the South Asia Head for the largest global Multi-stakeholder Initiative. (MSI) based in Washington DC. She has been associated with various business associations and diverse organizations in India and South Asia on fair trade practices and human rights. Her specific focus has been on labor rights, strategic corporate social responsibilities, and good governance systems in supply chain management, women’s rights, labor rights violations, and capacity building training for 17 years. She has also been instrumental in strategic planning and formulation of sustainability and compliance programs across South Asian countries-India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh.

Subhadra has also been engaged in networking with meaningful and credible human rights organizations across India and South Asia. She has also been involved with various grass root level organizations, women’s federations, state, national and international NGOs, and multi-stakeholder organizations before managing the CSO Engagement (South Asia) portfolio in the present multi-stakeholder organization working towards protecting workers rights worldwide. 

She has been the author of her Research book titled ‘Impact of local self- Governance and Customary Law on the status of women’s participation in grassroots politics: An overview of Dima-Hasao and Karbi-Anglong districts of Assam-northeast India’. She has worked in the remote areas (including tribal belts) of almost all states in India on issues of economic and social justice. She is passionate about human rights issues and social justice. She is associated with various NGO’s, national and international women’s network. She is also a trainer and a researcher advocating human rights in India and globally.