MENAT: Business and Human Rights, Gender, and Migration Challenges

Dec 11, 2013 1:00 PM ET
Campaign: Stakeholder Voices
By Mark Nordstrom Senior Labor and Employment Counsel, GE

My last blog discussed a meeting of the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (“GBI”) in connection with a conference held in China. I noted that the topic of human rights and business was not as alien to China as I had anticipated. And now I have come to realize that the situation is similar in the UAE. Two years ago, the UAE government wouldn’t have held such a meeting. But times have changed. Not only did GBI sponsor an event cohosted by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abu Dhabi, but the World Economic Forum also followed up this event with a workshop on the topic of business and human rights in the UAE.

Under the three-pillar framework established by John Ruggie, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Business and Human Rights, and unanimously endorsed in 2011 by the United Nations Council on Human Rights, countries must protect human rights, business entities must respect them, and both need to provide for remedies in the event of human rights deprivations. While the GBI discussions covered many important topics relating to these issues, there was particular focus on two issues that multinational companies like GE must take seriously in order to fulfill our responsibility to respect human rights: gender equality and migrant workers. Both issues are highly relevant in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT) regions.

Broadly speaking, the dilemma for a multinational company like GE that operates in MENAT is how to adhere to The Spirit & The Letter requirements of gender equality in a region where gender inequality is the cultural norm in business and broader society. Of course, as in any region, practices and laws differ with respect to how much inequality is accepted, and there are clear differences between Saudi Arabia, for example, and the UAE.  In any case, we recognize that the number of female university graduates in the Gulf region are not adequately represented in the MNEs’ employee populations. This results in a tremendous talent loss to GE and other MNEs trying to grow in this region. Rania Rostom, GGO Communication and Innovation Leader for MENAT, has been working diligently to unleash the underutilized female talent that resides in the Gulf States by empowering these women through GE initiatives like the Women’s Network, a networking and mentoring program that connects women at GE. The Network allows women to effectively gain greater representation within the GE workforce by helping them overcome cultural impediments to genuine workforce equality. Rania discussed GE’s efforts on gender equality at the GBI conference. In particular, she described a recent partnership with Aramco and TATA formed to create a business process outsourcing (BPO) entity that will try to employ more than 3,000 women to staff positions at the partners’ respective Saudi operations. It was remarkable to me that a Saudi government–owned enterprise would establish an organization with an overriding focus on placing women business professionals into the workforce.

While this development clearly shows that attitudes toward gender equality in business are changing in the Gulf Region, there’s still much work to be done to achieve parity. Concerns over equal pay and promotion opportunities are real not only in MENAT, but also in ECD countries. Our female colleagues from the Gulf States have noted that family and culture are also two huge impediments to women’s achieving success in the workplace, and that a more flexible work-life balance and a shift in gender-based child care responsibilities that would encourage men in the Middle East to shoulder a greater share of family responsibilities could help women attain happiness and sanity at work and play, and provide more support for women in advancing their professional careers.

The GBI meeting also focused on migration, a highly relevant topic in the MENAT region.  Many of the migrant workers here are in low-paid service, construction and domestic positions and come from countries outside the region like India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Throughout history, migrant workers have suffered enormous abuse and degradation. While GE does not often employ migrant workers directly—except for ex-pats in the upper management ranks—many of our direct business partners in MENAT do. We need to understand our direct links with suppliers and direct business partners that rely on migrant workers and make sure that their businesses are treating their migrant workers with respect—that is, respecting their human rights. While there are a number of human rights laws that address employment—issues like living wage, forced labor, discrimination, and freedom of association—there is a set of 10 principles, known as the Dhaka Principles, that establish fair practices in the area of contracting for migrant workers. These include:

  1. No fees are charged to migrant workers
  2. All migrant workers’ contracts are clear and transparent
  3. Policies and procedures are inclusive
  4. No migrant workers’ passports are retained
  5. Wages are paid regularly, directly and on time
  6. The right to worker representation is respected
  7. Working conditions are safe and decent
  8. Living conditions are safe and decent
  9. Access to remedy is provided
  10. Freedom to change employment is respected and safe return guaranteed

Indeed, the GBI meeting in Abu Dhabi assured me that the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are here to stay and are applicable to every business entity in the world, no matter its size, region or nature—although it’s going to take a lot of work both for companies like GE and for governments to implement these principles. MENAT, like other regions, presents GE with unique issues as we grow our presence and seek to operate in a way that respects human rights.