The subject of human rights has long been the black sheep of the corporate responsibility (CR) “family” of issues. Respecting and promoting human rights can be a challenge if companies don’t have insight into their human rights practices, impacts and policies. And yet, these rights are so very important to the way we work, the products and services we choose to support, and the opportunities we have in our lives and communities.
The truth is that for far too many people around the world, human rights are being compromised. Thankfully, an increasing number of companies are beginning to shape policies, approaches and even communications, to address the human rights issues that are important to their employees, other stakeholders and the sustainability of their business.
A changing transparency landscape
So why should companies focus on communicating about human rights?
A driving force in corporate transparency has been increased coverage of human rights abuses in the media. Stories like the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh – which killed over 1,100 workers – ignited an international dialogue about the role of companies in protecting human rights and led people to demand more corporate disclosure.
These kinds of tragedies have prompted new regulations, heightened stakeholder interest and a rejuvenated focus on reporting standards. Most notably in 2015, the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework was launched, providing the first comprehensive guide for businesses to report on their most salient human rights issues.
As the conversation around human rights has increased, so has the complexity and variety of human rights issues entering the public dialogue.
Not just an issue for developing countries
For much of 2015, conversations have escalated on human rights and wages. In particular, more than 500 U.S. cities experienced wage strikes, recognizing the 75 million Americans working at or below poverty-level wages. The “Fight for $15” – an effort to increase the minimum wage – has engaged millions and found alignment in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Debate also continues on wage parity between the sexes. Despite the passage of the U.S. Equal Pay Act in 1963 requiring men and women to be paid equally for doing the same work, 2014 data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research showed that female full-time workers made only 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. Salesforce is one company that has decided to take a stand on the issue. After reviewing its 17,000 employee’s salaries, the company revised its payroll to ensure men and women are being paid equally for similar jobs.
It’s clear that human rights shouldn’t be viewed as purely an issue in developing nations—resolution of issues such as those pertaining to fair wages is critical to the ability of all people having the opportunities they deserve.
Some privacy, please
Also gaining traction is the framing of “digital privacy” as a human and civil rights issue. Edward Snowden’s leaking of secret NSA documents about U.S. government internet and phone surveillance practices shifted the world’s outlook on what the “right to privacy” means in our digital age. That is part of what prompted the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution approving a Special Rapporteur on Privacy in the Digital Age (to advocate against, track and report on violations), lauded by respected organizations like Human Rights Watch. Companies have felt the pressure, with major credit card hacks making consumers wary about how safe their personal data is. C-Suites are responding, such as Apple CEO, Tim Cook, who during a White House Summit on cybersecurity declared digital privacy a human right; "If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life."
Just say no to conflict minerals
Another trending human rights issue is conflict minerals, with manufacturers being put under the microscope due to conflict minerals’ ties to militias wreaking human rights havoc in places like the Congo, Rwanda and Sudan. The passing of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, requiring companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals with the SEC was seen by many as a step forward. While companies continue to struggle with this regulation, it’s clear the Act has pushed them to put more resources behind gaining insight into their supply chain.
Notably, Intel just announced that starting in 2016, their vast global supply chain will be conflict-free. This is a result of collaboration with nonprofits and governments to audit supplier mines since Intel set their conflict-free goal in 2009. Intel’s efforts, in concert with other manufacturers, have been found by the Enough Project to reduce the amount of money going to conflict for tungsten, tantalum and tin by 65 percent.
The ultimate human right, a healthy environment
The recent climate talks in Paris highlighted the links between climate change and human rights. Recent world events have made it clear that diminishing water supplies, more extreme weather events and rights to health, life, food, sanitation, housing and even nationality, are threatened by climate change. Furthermore, these threats disproportionately affect “the most vulnerable”—those most susceptible to the dangers of a changing climate due to their age, gender, disability, poverty level, geography, and indigenous or minority status. It was an appreciation of the rights of people that tipped the negotiations in Paris to hold an increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Summing it up
The bar for corporate behavior in the human rights arena is higher than ever.
It’s important for companies to identify their salient human rights issues, develop policies and protocols to respect them, and report on progress in a credible way by providing context, acknowledging challenges and actively engaging stakeholders in continuous improvement. This level of engagement and communication has moved beyond a business expectation, it’s now a business imperative. By taking human rights seriously and talking about them transparently, companies will contribute to a better future for their business and society.