Battling Discrimination: Sustained Business Action Key to Valuing Diverse Societies
Companies can and do act against discrimination. But they often face difficult political, legal, and cultural barriers when seeking to do so. Initiatives such as the ILO’s Business Charter on Disability and International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination are reminders of other forms of intolerance, based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, caste, and language. Discrimination remains a significant factor in problems around land use and acquisition with continued cases affecting indigenous people.
Acting against discrimination is not just the right thing to do but is also in the commercial interests of companies. Economists have long argued that discrimination is damaging to a competitive economy, and business is hurt with reduction in consumer markets and the pool of potential employees. For example, the World Bank estimated discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities cost as much as 1.7 per cent of India’s GDP.
Efforts to battle discrimination against LGBTI communities will build in 2016. This is due in part to growing global research on discrimination in the world of work and increased scrutiny of company performance, as can be seen in the US and the UK where one survey of the London Stock Exchange found leading companies did not communicate their professed policy commitments to ‘diversity’ and LGBTI inclusion in annual reports or make stakeholders aware.
Actions by some governments to introduce homophobic legislation have also raised serious questions about how companies should respond. A leading European retailer, following Russian laws banning representation of same-sex relationships, faced negative publicity for removing a catalogue article with a family photograph of such a couple. Business compliance with the law was seen as endorsing state action fostering prejudice.
Companies face dilemmas when caught between local law, unsupportive states and discriminatory local culture and public attitudes, but they have a responsibility to show human rights leadership. Signs of positive action are emerging, such as the initiative of twelve major companies pledging global action on LGBTI issues.
The year ahead will likely see more companies stepping forward to promote diversity and fight prejudice. This includes efforts to address ongoing discrimination and violence against women, often who are precarious underpaid workers, under-rewarded community and family members or vulnerable human rights defenders - despite calls for women’s economic empowerment and clear global business concerns over gender inequality. States and companies must show greater commitment to eliminating LGBTI, gender, religion and other forms of discrimination as an integral part of the responsible business agenda.