Are Human Rights someone else’s problem?

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On this day, 73 years ago, the nations of the world stood together across geographical and national lines, and declared their commitment to ending the horrors of the First and Second World Wars.

Accepted unanimously by the General Assembly of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked a seminal moment in human history. With the opening lines of its preamble declaring the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, it offered much hope for future generations.

Fast forward to 2021 and we remain in the grip of a global pandemic with its ominous mutations, which have damaged health, economies, and the workplace.

Against this backdrop, the past year has been a stark reminder of how the liberal democracies, traditional champions of human rights can mess things up. Only this week, as we enter a new wave of restrictions, reports have emerged that in December 2020, after a fundamental right (that being our freedom of movement) had been curtailed, Downing Street staff had gathered for a Christmas party.

It does not stop with our national governments. Across the globe workers are calling on their leaders to act with integrity and to treat them with respect. It's no longer about ‘one rule for us and another for them.’

We’ve heard of the great resignation, the ongoing trend of employees leaving their jobs in droves. We’ve heard how these resignations have been characterized as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how employers treated staff during this difficult time.

Many essential workers in low-wage roles, who have had to interact with the public, have handed in their notice. And now companies such as McDonald’s and Amazon are offering hiring bonuses ranging from $200 to $1,000. The professions are fed up too. They battled home schooling with increased pressure and ongoing targets which no-one amended. They expected their employers to make moves to help alleviate, or at least acknowledge their concerns – and the companies that failed to do so have suffered. 

For business leaders, upholding international human rights, while maintaining a healthy balance sheet can feel burdensome and at times alienating. There are competing interests; one of which may look like a lofty idea, while the other a practical necessity. Yet the public and employees do not see it in this way and, increasingly, nor do regulatory and legislative bodies. Health, social impact and sustainability are collective responsibilities.

The question for us is, how much do we value this stuff? Ideals need translating, otherwise they risk remaining little more than ideals. For those who are committed, and even those who are a little sceptical, here are a few considerations to take with us into 2022.

Understand that businesses are not off the hook when it comes to Human Rights; decisions and actions have consequences

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are a set of guidelines for States and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations. 

Although the Guiding Principles do not create a cause of action, many States dependent on each other in commercial life have introduced legislation which makes compliance with the Guiding Principles mandatory. France, for example, through its Duty of Vigilance Law, Holland with its Dutch Child Labour due diligence law and the UK with its Modern Slavery Act. The EU only recently announced mandatory legislation on due diligence aimed at ensuring respect for human rights and the environment throughout the entire supply chain. Voluntary measures were deemed insufficient to prevent forced labour, child labour, deforestation, pollution and land grabbing.

Today an estimated 450 million people are working in supply chains ,often in extremely precarious situations. They typically experience poverty-level wages, unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, and often hold other characteristics– such as being women, or migrant workers – that make them in an even more vulnerable place.

For business leaders who care, it’s about going beyond the legislative requirements and putting these workers’ dignity, safety and stability at the heart of what they do when sourcing suppliers, contracting with them and monitoring. Throughout the pandemic, as buyers in western economies were cancelling and postponing orders, or demanding price reductions from suppliers, it was workers who bore the brunt. The actions of businesses have direct consequences on real people.

Appreciate that the public as well as national legislative bodies are holding businesses more accountable for social aspects of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG)

Ever since MeToo and Black Lives Matter, we are bearing witness to global movements pushing up at the social aspects of ESG. Pressure is being brought to bear on all organisations by investors, consumers and in national legislation.

Take sexual harassment, for example; a number of legislations have recently tightened up on their definitions of harassment along with increasing protection. In June 2020, Japan introduced legislation preventing power harassment in the workplace. In China, harassment was not defined until the PRC Civil Code came into effect on 1 January 2021.

Workers are demanding accountability for the structural inequalities which have held people back because of race, gender, disability and gender identity. Across the world they are looking to leaders who are committed to the values of equality and inclusion, who don’t just speak the values, but live them.

There is ample evidence showing that diversity is good for business. Companies will need to demonstrate their commitment in efforts to fight discrimination. Neither employees nor consumers are tolerating violations. They are hitting back, speaking out, blowing the whistle and voting with their feet.

So yes, there is a business case for human rights. But for me, there is more to it than a bottom-line analysis. I go back to the question of how much we value this stuff?

Viewed in its historical context, for its own sake, the case for human rights is sobering and compelling and it cannot be placed at the feet of someone else. Upholding human rights is our collective responsibility.

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