Migrant Workers

Speaking Up - A Growing Advocacy Dimension to Corporate Leadership on Human Rights

08 June 2018

By William Rook, Regional Manager, Middle East, IHRB

Not so very long ago, human rights were primarily viewed by businesses as risks to their operations and reputations that needed effective management. 

Today, we see growing recognition that risks to people must be addressed alongside risks to the bottom line. 

This is an important step forward. More businesses are developing their understanding of human rights responsibilities in line with international standards and starting to embed human rights due diligence within their organisations. With that comes increased scope for companies to address human rights issues from positions of greater authority, and in ways that align with the values of their organisations.

To date, most successful corporate human rights advocacy has been based on a deep engagement with an issue that permeates through how companies operate.

Next week in Singapore, the Global Forum on Responsible Recruitment and Employment will see representatives of global companies and their civil society partners from around the world coming together with the shared aim of fostering better regulation and enforcement of standards relating to the recruitment and employment of migrant workers.

This multi-stakeholder event, co-organised by IHRB and the Consumer Goods Forum, will include the voices and experiences of corporate members of the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment. This type of collective company-led advocacy around a specific human rights challenge is a trend that is important to observe and foster.

Expanding Space for Advocacy

As such corporate advocacy grows in prominence, it is important to monitor which human rights issues are gaining traction, and how companies should engage with and seek to apply their leverage to make positive impacts.

To date, most successful corporate human rights advocacy has been based on a deep engagement with an issue that permeates through how companies operate. We can see this on issues like advancing gender equality and LGBTI+ rights, as well as in efforts to protect workers in supply chains. It is no coincidence that these issues are often core to business; as Chatterji and Toffel note in the Harvard Business Review, to speak out on issues unconnected with business operations leaves companies at risk of being ill-informed, retroactive, and not speaking from a position of authority or internal buy-in.

Today, the progressive internalisation of these issues in alignment with business interests and sustainable performance means that companies can increasingly speak on these issues in an informed, strategic way.

The responsible business agenda, emphasising the need to embed respect for human rights throughout the operations of a company, is a marked progression from philanthropic and CSR approaches of the past.

As leading companies align their operations with respecting human rights, it is only natural that taking a leadership position becomes viable on issues where business, government, and other stakeholders must all work together. Historically social issues and human rights were largely seen as externalities to companies. Today, the progressive internalisation of these issues in alignment with business interests and sustainable performance means that companies can increasingly speak on these issues in an informed, strategic way.

For corporate advocacy to be seen as legitimate, companies need to demonstrate proactive due diligence on their own business operations.

How does what they find stack up against their stated positions? An example that will be highlighted in Singapore next week is the systemic charging of recruitment fees paid by migrant workers to secure employment. This practice leaves many workers in situations of debt bondage (an indicator of forced labour) and is found in the supply chains of many brands that otherwise quickly position themselves as opposed to modern slavery.

Tackling forced labour and trafficking has widespread support across the political spectrum, an increasing degree of legislative alignment, and has a commercial imperative for companies at risk from competing with unscrupulous and exploitative operators.

Companies taking a position on the need to combat modern slavery is thus a natural fit. Ensuring a supply-chain free from forced labour is a core business issue for many companies, and one where there is only an upside to taking a leadership position. As such, we now see tackling forced labour as a key pillar of the human rights strategies of many trade groups, including in consumer goods, tourism, events and construction sectors.  

Opportunities for Greater Collective Advocacy

Another example of human rights advocacy aligning with organisational values can be seen in the ongoing efforts of sports bodies. Sporting movements have long advanced human rights in ways that might not have been articulated as such, with values like equality, diversity, and safeguarding underpinning their work.

As companies become increasingly familiar with articulating and embedding human rights principles and standards in their operations, it is more likely that the space for corporate human rights advocacy will expand. 

Sports bodies have the potential to use the visibility and goodwill afforded to them as custodians of sporting movements to show leadership on a range of human rights issues throughout their value chains. Specific credit can be given, for instance, to the Commonwealth Games for delivering in Gold Coast the most gender equal major multi-sports event in history, and to FIFA for demonstrating support for human rights defenders in Russia.

As companies become increasingly familiar with articulating and embedding human rights principles and standards in their operations, it is more likely that the space for corporate human rights advocacy will expand.

This presents an opportunity for early-movers to associate themselves with a cause or issue that is of core relevance to the company, to work with others to set shared objectives, and to make a significant impact by doing so. Potential downsides can be mitigated through collective advocacy, including through business associations or trade groups, as well as by involving civil society and other actors through specific collective action platforms.

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