Cutting Through the Haze of Business and Human Rights in India

Dec 21, 2017 1:00 PM ET
Campaign: Human Rights

Arriving in Delhi by night doesn’t give you a true sense of the city’s vastness. The low hum of hundreds of taxis whizzing around the airport terminal and the dirt kicked up from the wheels of 11:00 p.m. traffic blur the senses. But when morning came, and I saw the prim, gleaming hotels and office buildings of Gurgaon rise from a sprawling landscape of poverty and poke through the hazy, brown-grey horizon line, a clearer picture of India emerged.

Companies from around the world are investing in India, its resources, and its people, to capitalize on the economic growth of what could soon be the most populated country in the world, but critical human rights issues remain unaddressed.

With an estimated population of 1.3 billion people, it’s clear that India may benefit more than any other country from realizing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As companies like Amazon, Unilever and Apple continue their investment in India, the private sector will be an integral partner to achieve those goals, particularly the ones focused on human rights. However, getting companies to understand their full responsibility to protect and respect human rights remains a challenge for all but the most advanced sustainability teams across the Fortune 500.

That’s why, as I arrived at a workshop with Shift and several sustainability professionals from major U.S. companies operating in India, uncertainty filled my mind. Would these companies understand the impacts of their businesses on a community's access to water? The nuances of using migrant labor? Appropriate compensation for overtime in developing communities? My eyes flitted between the brand names atop massive buildings and the tut tuts stacked high with weary riders. The weight of business and human rights issues was not lost on me, creating both a conviction for action and wariness of the obstacles that lay ahead.

As part of an ongoing partnership to support a larger project led by Shift, the sustainability nonprofit organization Ceres convened a select group of eight companies, including representatives from the apparel, technology, consumer goods and agriculture sectors, for a full-day workshop focused on corporate uptake of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The workshop explored how companies can embed respect for human rights through policies and management systems and how to disclose their progress for external audiences.

If the small army of construction workers hammering away in sweltering heat on the scaffolding of the building next to us didn’t make it clear, recent reports and news stories do: risks associated with human rights have never been more apparent, and the opportunity for companies to act has never been more necessary. In a report released just days before our workshop, the International Labour Organization confirmed that 40.3 million people are victims of modern slavery, including 24.9 million in situations of forced labor.

That’s why, as participants began opening up about their experiences and ideas for corporate action on human rights, the hope and passion for action I heard in their voices assuaged my concerns of a defensive audience, reluctant to share specific struggles.

All around, I heard stories of engaging unions and community leaders to understand the specific impacts of agriculture and manufacturing in India. The impact of industrial runoff in community water resources. The necessity of educating workers on policies, not just posting them on the factory floor. These stories elicited responses of support and encouragement from peers: “That’s great, now go further.” One participant even shared that engaging women and mothers led to the most lasting impact for reducing child labor in west India’s cotton industry, something they wouldn’t have known unless they worked directly with communities.

But that doesn’t mean companies weren’t challenged to think through new and difficult situations. Through a series of interactive discussions and exercises, participants were asked to consider specific issues through the lens of saliency. A complement to the more widely understood ideas of materiality and risk to the business, saliency requires companies to think through specific issues from the perspective of the “rights-holder” and where business activities have the largest, most severe, and most irremediable impacts.

“By engaging companies on the idea of saliency,” said Mairead Keigher, reporting program manager for Shift, “we can help them prioritize the most important human rights issues to address not just based on financial risk but according to the risk to people. We’ve found over and over again that companies who prioritize the risk to people are better positioned to address the financial risk associated with human rights abuses too.”

When it comes to setting corporate strategies for sustainability, the shift from focusing exclusively on material issues to starting with saliency won’t be an easy one. Growing investor pressure and regulations (in California and countries like the UK, The Netherlands, France and Australia) will encourage it, but ultimately it will be companies and their sustainability professionals who will have to shepherd this human-rights focused approach to sustainability. During exercises that asked participants to prioritize action on salient human rights issues for fictional companies, statements like “that’s a reputational risk for us” and “water is a critical resource for us” crept into the conversation, conflating the focus on risk to business versus the risk to rights-holders.

With the influx of global capital contributing to consistent GDP growth in India, companies operating in India are in a better position than ever to address human rights issues. Indian law even requires large companies to donate at least 2 percent of their annual profit to CSR-related charities (broadly defined to include things like education, poverty alleviation, and public health) and stock exchange regulations require the top 500 companies in India to disclose their respect for human rights. But despite the opportunities for action and the regulatory push, advocates contest that companies are still philanthropy-focused and not integrating human rights into business planning.

“Companies will need to focus on not how they are using their profits to impact human rights but how they are making their profit and what they can do in their operations and supply chains to mitigate negative impacts overall” says Viraf Mehta, an advisor to Partners in Change, an organization leading the charge for corporate respect of human rights in India. “The forthcoming National Voluntary Guidelines will spell out how companies in India should be moving from traditional philanthropy-focused approach to human rights and make it part of the business’s responsibility to respect and protect the human rights of everyone involved."

Moving from this philanthropy driven approach, guided by reactionary decisions to the most recently publicized human rights issues, to a proactive assessment and mitigation of impacts will require a shift in thinking that no regulation or resolution can fully realize.

The UNGPs give companies a process and framework to guide that shift towards respecting and protecting human rights, but businesses are still unclear on how to realize that vision. Despite the steep learning curve and complex challenges, it’s clear that those working most closely with communities and rights-holders understand the imperative to act. When companies combine that imperative with the focus on rights-holders, we get one step closer to cutting through the haze and seeing the world beyond, a world where businesses thrive alongside the communities that support them.