Will 2016 be the tipping point for business to act on human rights?

Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December. It commemorates the day on which, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Responsible company leaders have long considered how they can minimise the impacts they have on the environment, particularly with product development, supply chain choices, transport, energy use and waste disposal. But when it comes to considering the company’s human rights impacts on people, a similar tipping point has yet to be reached.

The reasons are many. They range from company leaders seeing protection of human rights as a duty of government, to the belief that it is too difficult to identify a company’s many human rights impacts.

Yet the link between business and human rights is not new. Most corporations recognise they have control over a range of labour rights in relation to their employees and influence over those working in their supply chains. There is also recognition by corporates of a range of other internationally recognised rights such as intellectual property and privacy.

The question is how close are we to a tipping point where corporate responsibility to respect human rights is mainstream?

This year, 2015, has provided a number of early signals both internationally and in Australia that we may be moving closer.

In 2014, the national conversation about the corporate impacts on human rights was about workers conditions in factories in places like Bangladesh producing T-shirts for Australia, and Australian banks funding companies engaged in forced resettlement in places like Cambodia to produce sugar.

This year the focus has shifted sharply back to Australia, away from products to human rights in services; fruit and vegetable picking, cleaners, postal delivery, poultry production, franchises and backpacker labour forces. Across sectors, there have been investigations into the treatment of staff, wages, overtime hours, living conditions, bullying, demands on employees and the exploitative use of backpackers.

Solving the challenges that services present is complex. When the work is low or no-skilled and labour isn’t readily available, those desperate to work are vulnerable. In response to these complexities new collaborative solutions are emerging with government often a significant enabler. The Attorney General’s Department has active multi-stakeholder working groups which are releasing their recommendations on business and human rights.

Embracing respect for human rights as a business has obvious benefits for people. It can also be good for the bottom line, through helping understand and then preventing the causes of legal, regulator, reputational and operational risks. Social media is accelerating and amplifying the accountability challenges for business, especially in its human rights performance. This makes taking action now an even stronger imperative.

If 2015 indicated we are edging closer to a business and human rights tipping point then we will only reach that point in 2016 if these trends accelerate.

Business and government must ask, ‘How confident am I that the products and services we consume and provide are created with respect for human rights?’ They should not be afraid to act on the answers.


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