By Sabrina Basran
The world is no stranger to human rights abuses committed by companies – Union Carbide (taken over by Dow Chemical) in India in the 1980s; Shell in the Niger Delta; Nike and sweatshop labour in Vietnam the 1990s; Trafigura dumping toxic waste in Côte d'Ivoire in the 2000s; and Vedanta Resources in India today – these are a few among many examples.
In March 2011 John Ruggie, then Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) submitted his final report for consideration by the UN Human Rights Council. The report set out Ruggie’s Guiding Principles for implementing a ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework for human rights. The Council officially endorsed the Principles in June 2011. They were six years in the making.
Ruggie’s Framework rests on three pillars:
- The state duty to protect human rights
- The corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and
- Access to remedy (provided largely by states, but also by corporates).
A year on, what impact has Ruggie’s Framework (particularly the second pillar) had on business behaviour? Not much. Beyond a stated commitment to the Guiding Principles in a few CSR reports and Code of Ethics, there has been a conspicuous lack of activity by companies in implementing the Framework. This is not to say there has been none, but examples are few and far between. One of the difficulties with such voluntary guidance is there is no body to take ‘ownership’ once it is complete. As such, it tends to ‘drift’ and have little success in effecting genuine change.
This is perhaps why the EC announced earlier this year that it is developing guidance to support Ruggie’s second pillar, in conjunction with the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Shift. We will have to ‘watch this space’. Meanwhile, there is evidence of some change. Recent cases of corporate human rights abuses highlight that there is another ‘player’ in the human rights game besides states, business and regulatory bodies – the general public.
A case in point is Apple, which, in February 2012, admitted it had a human rights problem and agreed to investigate working conditions in its supply chain. The decision was partly due to growing pressure from consumers and the general public, including calls to boycott Apple products. This was especially the case in China, where one of Apple’s suppliers, Foxconn, had experienced a spate of suicides at its factories since 2009.
Another example is Hershey’s. After more than 100,000 consumers lobbied Hershey’s online as part of the ‘Raise the bar, Hershey!’ Coalition, the company agreed in March to buy Rainforest Alliance certified cocoa. The Coalition began in response to forced and child labour problems in Hershey’s supply chain.
These examples raise important questions around the role of guidance and regulation as drivers of corporate responsibility for human rights. The shift of power from state governments to multinational corporations suggests that we need a shift in thinking on human rights and how to effect positive change and progress. Is guidance sufficient? Does it place enough ‘pressure’ on companies? Does it really drive change in business behaviour? Compared to issues around corporate social responsibility, sustainability and ethics, human rights have long been the focus of regulatory bodies such as the UN. Yet, whilst there has been a definite shift in business attitudes towards these issues, companies have been reluctant to take much action.
This suggests regulation and guidance are not the best way forward. Where there has been company action this has been partly in response to public pressure. Ultimately, companies are pragmatic; they care about their future. If society is pushing for change, business will generally (albeit sometimes rather slowly), respond. This is increasingly the case as business realises the power of societal pressure to influence corporate reputation - and so the bottom line.
- Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie, ‘Guiding principles on business and human rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework’, 21st March 2011.
- Institute for human rights and business press release, 13th January 2012. See: http://www.ihrb.org/news/2012/new_project_to_develop_business_and_human_rights_guides_for_three_european_business_sectors.html
- Ethical performance, ‘Foxconn factory first in Apple’s supplier labour practices review’, March 2012.
- The Independent, ‘Apple admits it has a human rights problem’, 14th February 2012. See: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/apple-admits-it-has-a-human-rights-problem-6898617.html