Migrant Workers

Confronting Chaos and Confusion on Child and Migrant Rights

Commentary, 26 June 2018

By Scott Jerbi, Senior Advisor, Policy & Outreach, IHRB

The US business community faces a tragedy at home.  

In the same week that the United States (US) government announced its withdrawal from the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty issued an important report on the plight of the poor in America, the Trump Administration’s actions to separate over 2,000 migrant children from their parents crossing illegally into the country have been watched with shock at home and around the world. 

The US business community has been pulled into the unfolding story on multiple levels and a growing number of businesses are making clear that fundamental rights are at stake. 

Four US based airlines have spoken out against the administration’s actions, saying they don't want the government to use their services to transport migrant children who have been separated from their families. The US bus line Greyhound is facing pressure to take a similar stand. Private operators of facilities caring for migrant children caught up in the current policy shifts are under stronger scrutiny as well, including over reported cases of abusive treatment.

A number of high profile CEOs are demanding action to end the separation practices and calling for urgent steps to reunite families.  

The tech sector is also confronting its role in the controversy.

Google and Microsoft employees have called for an end to company contracts with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which has been implicated in the actions to separate migrant families at the border. Amazon workers have taken a similar line concerning facial recognition technology cooperation projects with US law enforcement. As the letter from Microsoft workers puts it, “We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognise the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”

A number of high profile CEOs as well as business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce are demanding action to end the separation practices and calling for urgent steps to reunite families.  

What do these developments suggest about the importance of corporate respect for human rights, including during moments when governments clearly go against their own stated commitments to protect the human rights of all, especially the most vulnerable, including migrants and refugees? 

What actions do US business leaders need to take in the days, weeks and months ahead given the Trump administration’s clear aim, despite the President’s apparent policy reversals, of continuing its drive to address what it views, incorrectly by independent accounts, as a migrant crisis on its southern border? 

The unfolding events at the border are important reminders to business leaders that international standards matter.

First, the unfolding events at the border are important reminders to business leaders that international standards matter. The United States is the only country that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC is an international standard all US businesses should be familiar with, in particular at this critical moment. It affirms the right of all children to family unity. Article 9 specifies that “a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” This article also makes clear that “Where such separation results from any action initiated by a State Party, such as the detention, imprisonment, exile, deportation or death … of one or both parents or of the child, that State Party shall, upon request, provide the parents, the child or, if appropriate, another member of the family with the essential information concerning the whereabouts of the absent member(s) of the family unless the provision of the information would be detrimental to the well-being of the child.” 

The United States is the only country that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

While it is clear that businesses don’t have direct obligations under such provisions applying to states that have ratified the convention, these standards nevertheless represent overwhelming international consensus on how all governments should treat children and their families. That means businesses should be aware of what the convention says, and in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, should avoid adversely impacting on these internationally recognised rights in any way. 

Business leaders should seek to be a voice of reason and accurate information on the issues involved.

Second, while the US government continues to debate changes to its immigration system, which by many bipartisan and non-partisan accounts needs comprehensive reforms, business leaders should seek to be a voice of reason and accurate information on the issues involved. The US economy is reliant on migrant labour to fill a wide range of jobs. US companies need to help ensure a more informed debate and combat false narratives that make migrants into villains. Those companies that violate worker rights also need to be held to account. 

Corporate America has been at the forefront of calls for more visas to skilled migrant workers in hi-tech industries and other key sectors. US agribusinesses and other industries, which cannot function without migrant workers, have faced pressure to ensure decent working conditions and pay. Business leaders should use this moment to collectively make the case for what respecting human rights means in practice. A good place to start when it comes to migrant workers is committing to the Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity that we at IHRB have championed over recent years, including through our support for companies addressing these issues through the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment. Businesses from all sectors should be part of discussions, along with civil society, on how the US immigration system can be reformed, while ensuring that migrant rights are protected.  They should also seek to link their support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals with strategies that can promote greater economic opportunities for countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where violence and poverty have driven many to seek shelter and support elsewhere. 

Business leaders should do their part to champion all human rights.

Finally, business leaders should do their part to champion all human rights in this, the 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR is the founding statement of the international community on the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people. It is a document that was produced thanks in part to US political leadership. 

Many more US business leaders should be willing to step up, as some have in response to the current crisis, and demonstrate their own commitment to respect for human rights. The Trump administration is charting an increasingly disturbing course, which makes it all the more important that we hear more business voices talking about why human rights still matter.

Indeed, there are times when we all must stand up and be counted. There are times when each of us must be a human rights defender. This is one of those times. 


Photo: Flickr/Charles Edward Miller

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