There is no doubt in my mind that business approaches to human rights are maturing rapidly. Only a few years ago, many of my conversations with companies were focused on why they should address human rights at all. Those conversations are far less frequent now. These days I spend much more time talking about the specifics of what action companies should take and how they can solve particular dilemmas and challenges. Whereas my meetings used to be almost exclusively with sustainability professionals at corporations, today I spend much of my time talking to C-suite executives, investors and pension fund analysts. Attitudes are less defensive and more open. People are asking more questions in a genuine effort to understand and progress.
Human rights management has become a corporate career path supported by academic courses and professional education. Much has been achieved in a relatively short time and that should be celebrated. There are many reasons for these developments. The UN Guiding Principles have clearly articulated society’s expectation that business has a responsibility to respect human rights. High profile publicity around tragedies such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh has helped to raise public awareness. Social media has given people a channel to make their voices heard more loudly and clearly than ever before. Changing demographics and the increasing influence of the Millennial generation also play a part.
So the question must be, where next? After all, we have not yet solved the problems. We have just reached a point where many more people in the business world recognise that the problems exist and accept that business has a responsibility to address them. There is still much work to be done.
If there is one message I would like to leave with you on International Human Rights Day, it is that you should not misinterpret the UN Guiding Principles as putting the responsibility for human rights issues solely onto businesses. Business is just one of the actors that needs to play a part. It is important to be clear about which issues your organisation can address itself and which issues require collaboration with others. It is a question of where you have control, and where you may not have control but you do have influence.
Many human rights problems are too big and too systemically pervasive for single organisations to solve. What is needed to drive real change is constructive collaboration between all relevant stakeholders including companies, regulators, NGOs and investors. For many companies, this requires a shift in perceptions to see NGOs and labour organisations as partners on the same team, aiming for the same objectives.
A good example is a project I’ve been involved with for almost four years in the cleaning industry. Ruthless competition and rate cutting in the commercial cleaning industry has led to exploitation of vulnerable workers through unfair wage levels and oppressive working conditions. The Cleaning Accountability Framework has brought the service providers (cleaning companies) and clients (building owners and managers) together with the regulator (the Australian Government’s Fair Work Ombudsman), the union (United Voice), and industry associations. The result is a pilot certification scheme that aims to improve working conditions and pay levels for cleaning staff and protect their rights.
It is just one example of potentially game-changing outcomes that emerge when business works with others to tackle a human rights issue. I think we’ll be seeing many more of these in years to come.