Exploring Best Practices for Human Rights Issues – An Erb Institute/WEC roundtable
By Allison Torres Burtka
The field of sustainability began with environmental issues, which brought about standards and regulations that companies must follow. But human rights issues don’t yet have the same kind of established standards. “It’s still a relatively new dialogue and language for the business community,” said Theresa Loar, an independent consultant who focuses on human rights in business. “While there are excellent UN guiding principles, it’s not the same thing as your government setting certain requirements and standards.
But the onus is on the business world, said Terry Yosie, president and CEO of the World Environment Center. “The multinational corporation is one of the most successful institutions in the world, and it is expected to do more”—which sometimes includes building schools, and helping to maintain health care facilities and sanitation systems, Yosie said. “The reality of contemporary society is that if you are a successful global company, you have to be alert to and aware of these issues.”
The Erb Institute and World Environment Center held a roundtable on “Managing Human Rights Issues in Global Companies: What Are Best Practices and How Are They Implemented?” in Ann Arbor last year, which brought together 26 professionals, including senior company executives, external thought leaders, and Erb Institute faculty and students. Dr. Michael Posner, New York University professor and chair of the World Economic Forum initiative that published the report Shared Responsibility: A New Paradigm for Supply Chains, delivered the keynote remarks. Among the points he made was that human rights standards should be tailored to each industry.
Yosie said that the roundtable speakers repeatedly reinforced the idea that “no single organization can manage this challenge on its own.” So collaboration is key, including partnering with other competitors and trying to enlist NGOs,” he said. “Creativity is a company recognizing its own limitations and looking to other business relationships.” One example is equipping migrant workers with mobile phones, to make it easier for companies to be aware of what’s happening as it happens, he said.
Niemann noted that Ford faced issues with conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Highly regulated industries usually fight regulations. Instead, we participated in the development of standards to which we were going to be asked to adhere,” he said. Ford joined existing working groups, and company leadership “had a maturing understanding of what needed to be done. That translated into a business metric to improve the quality of people’s lives—to improve the human condition.”
Loar described being part of a CH2M and civil society team that helped build an engineering and construction industry consortium, called Building Responsibly, that was launched in London in February to promote workers’ rights and welfare, including preventing slavery in the supply chain. It took three years of work with industry leaders, government officials and human rights NGOs, she explained. The resulting consortium aims to improve conditions for workers but also “provide a more consistent delivery platform to our clients,” she said. This business focus means that if clients hire companies in the consortium, they know they will get a consistent approach. “If you want it to be sustainable, to be embedded, you have to build it in,” she added.
Collaboration allows disparate actors to draw on each other’s strengths. “Different organizations possess different assets,” Yosie said, “including money, management skill and credibility.” Because human rights issues are a relatively new part of sustainability efforts, “people are learning on the fly,” Yosie said. “The range of challenges still exceeds the supply of talented collaborators.”
Four Erb students presented two human rights tools for impact assessment and implementation. The participants also explored ways to manage their operations to prevent violations—and to make corrections when they identify violations. The participants developed several conclusions, including:
- Human rights policies must account for a rapidly changing agenda.
- Human rights are likely to become more prominent in talent recruitment and retention.
- Companies need to leverage their own support for human rights protections at market scale.
- Regulatory standards and human rights enforcement likely will be applied to supply chains, human trafficking and other challenges, and business will be expected to manage human rights issues more aggressively where governments have not acted.
- The confluence of hyper-transparency and technology can make it easier to identify human rights abuses.
- The UN Guiding Principles are an excellent starting point, but the definitions and metrics behind them need to be honed to fit specific business operations.
It puts new juice in the battery, like a pep talk from the coach,” Niemann said. “It’s a healthy reminder that we’re not there yet, but we’re not alone in the struggle.” In conversations like these, “people become more aware of the possible,” he said.