Conflict no excuse for business to act irresponsibly

Commentary, 15 March 2011

By Mary Robinson, Patron and Founding Chair, IHRB

Thousands of migrant workers wait to enter Tunisia, in order to escape the violence in Libya, at Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Photo: Spencer Platt

As violence in Libya continues, tens of thousands of people of different nationalities, many of them migrant workers from countries ranging from China to India, Ethiopia to Nigeria, await ferries that can take them to safety across the Mediterranean. Over 3,000 Bangladeshi workers have returned home since the anti-government protests began, but countless others remain caught up in the growing conflict, out of reach of humanitarian assistance.

Employers have forced workers from factories or construction sites, and abandoned them to make their own way to Benghazi or elsewhere. African migrants are exposed to additional risk of attack because of Gaddafi’s recruitment of African mercenaries to suppress anti-government protestors.

Libya, like many other countries in the region, has relied on migrant workers for unskilled labour and has profited considerably from their contribution to the economy for decades. Both recruitment and employment practices render migrant workers across the world vulnerable even in times of social and political stability. This becomes more acute during times of crisis. Neither employers nor home governments offer adequate protection or support for the repatriation of migrant workers.

So what should be expected of employers operating in situations of conflict and civil unrest who have profited from cheap migrant labour for so long?

Individual employers cannot be expected to organize safe return to workers’ countries of origin under current circumstances in Libya. But the desperate plight of these migrants points to at least two areas of pressing need where corporations should play a role in ensuring better protection in the future.

First, employers, joint venture partners, and buyers must undertake stronger human rights due diligence, including steps to protect workers in their operations and supply chains, particularly during crisis and conflict situations. Second, the private sector should join the call for strengthened international mechanisms to safeguard migrants’ rights, on whose labour their economic viability has come to depend.

Protection of human rights is the obligation of states but companies have a responsibility to respect human rights – which means at minimum to do no harm, and ensure that ongoing due diligence is in place so that business activities do not negatively impact on the enjoyment of fundamental rights.

Clearly, companies have always operated in conflict zones and in areas of social unrest. Many companies have no choice but to be present in such contexts – the resources they require are there, and may be critical for the functioning of the local and global economy. Others must continue to operate because even in a conflict zone, civilian populations need employment as well as food, water, electricity, fuel, and many other goods and services which companies provide.

Yet despite valid reasons for staying, intentionally or not companies from a range of industry sectors have acted such that the consequences of their conduct have assisted government and security forces to commit more abuses.

For example, the Egyptian government under Hosni Mubarak made demands on mobile phone operators to suspend services during the recent uprising and transmit inflammatory messages over their networks.

Telecommunications companies operating in Egypt could have taken a series of steps to delay executing those instructions and raise human rights concerns. Asking for the provisions of law under which such steps should be taken, informing customers of government demands, and highlighting the human rights impact of such decisions could have all been part of a company’s public or private response.

In the time ahead, all companies need to develop a keener understanding of human rights and their potential complicity in violations, from migrant worker abuses to undermining freedom of information to all the other rights that make up international human rights law.

The first step for any company is to draw on the UN endorsed Protect, Respect, Remedy framework put forward by John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights. Ruggie’s work will culminate in the coming months with the adoption by UN member states of guiding principles, which will provide further operational guidance to companies on human rights. Once this framework is firmly in place, no company will be able to say, “we didn’t know how to address our responsibilities for human rights.”

Companies operating in countries such as Libya will clearly continue to face multiple risks. Some have made progress in developing systems through which they can protect their workers and operate responsibly even in difficult circumstances. But countless more have not learned these lessons.

What we need to see going forward is the adoption of human rights due diligence by all companies. Developing clear policies, tracking and monitoring performance and ensuring that negative human rights impacts are prevented won’t be easy, but it should become part of mainstream business practice.

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