Overcoming the “Exit Challenge” - Why We Need New Forms of Social Contract

Commentary, 12 September 2016

By John Morrison, Chief Executive, IHRB


The #Brexit vote in the UK earlier this year, the rise of extreme populists in many parts of Europe and now the USA all pose a central challenge: How to convince people that complex problems need complex solutions? Building walls, leaving international organisations and making wild promises seem unlikely to maintain a peaceful world however attractive they might sound in the short-term. This is what I call the "Exit Challenge". How do we safeguard the voice of the people through democratic channels, on the one hand, whilst dealing with the reality that solutions take time and are rarely simple: often requiring collective action and compromise between governments, business and civil society?

The first thing is to admit about what is wrong with the status quo. Democratic elections every four or five years are an essential but not sufficient component of the new social contracts that will be demanded by local communities. Decision makers in capitals can seem very remote and the benefits of pooling some sovereignty with other nations in groups such as the European Union, NATO or even the United Nations can seem tenuous. Communities need to see the benefit for themselves in concrete terms, they need to feel involved enough to give some level of active and not just tacit consent for decisions that impact upon their lives, and (fundamentally) they need to believe that the decision-making processes are legitimate and free from corruption. You can label this in several ways - I call it "social licence" in my book of the same name - but call it what you like, it is clearly what is needed.

One of my heroes is Thomas Paine, an awkward character by all accounts: wanted for sedition by the British Government, and never fully recognised in France and the USA for the role he played in their respective revolution/independence war of the eighteenth century. Yet in 1777, he wrote:

"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must undergo the fatigues of supporting it."

Then Paine was talking about the need for democracies and for the self-determination of peoples. Now we must consider any of the many complex global problems our world is facing. How to overcome the Exit Challenge? How to convince people that it is worth the fatigues of supportingcomplex collective responses?

Here are just three of the complex problems the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) is working on at the moment and why it is worth the fatigue of supporting of supporting them - and believe me, fatigue is sometimes the most apt of words.

First, the huge challenge of human trafficking and forced labour - which now exploits at least 23 million people in modern day slavery.

It is an emotive issue and politically sensitive when linked to the legacy of four hundred years of slavery across the Atlantic or caste systems in Asia that are far older. There are certainly parts of modern day slavery that are deeply historic and have never fully gone away. But there are also new forms that are a direct result of globalisation. Take for example the complex nature of global supply chains in which migrant labour has become a key commodity or the vulnerability of millions of migrants holed up on the borders of Europe to further exploitation at the hands of traffickers. We are trying to mobilise around just one aspect of this complex problem - the fact that businesses (all over the world) increasingly use labour agencies to procure temporary workers and that increasingly these are migrant workers. The Dhaka Principles, launched by IHRB in Bangladesh back in 2012, set a number of vulnerability indicators for avoiding the exploitation of migrant workers and for establishing responsible recruitment practices all over the world. One key element is that it should be the employer that bears the cost of recruitment and not the worker - what we call the #employerpays principle.

A range of businesses, NGOs and international organisations have joined us to build collective leverage to eradicate worker fees in every part of the world over the next ten years. Although worker payments to agencies are illegal in most countries, they still happen in most countries - so there is a clear law enforcement and political will component. But businesses can do a lot by cleaning their supply chains of unethical recruitment and switching to either direct recruitment or only using third parties that meet basic criteria such as those set out in the Dhaka Principles.

A second example, would be the crisis currently facing Mega-Sporting Events.

If ever there is a global industry needing to re-establish the social licence of its activities it is global sport - from corruption scandals, to state-sponsored doping to the human rights impacts of the events themselves. Put simply, how many people should die in delivering a mega-sporting event: 50 as was the case for the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, 10 constructing sites for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil or the reported three deaths that have already occurred in the building work for Qatar 2022? The tension is that for sport to be truly global, mega-sporting events need to be global too and hosted in every global region. So protectionism is not the answer. It is not about building walls that emerging economies can never jump, rather it must be based on partnership. We have a once in a generation opportunity to act on this and next month. In cooperation with the Swiss and US Governments, we are bringing together many of the key actors to Washington D.C. to focus on the existing gaps and agree a collective way forward. The 'fatigue component' comes that whilst major supporting bodies are making the right commitments, changing this into practice will take the next generation - and we need an impartial centre of excellence to ensure this is done legitimately. If not, the social licence of such events will not easily be restored and, if asked, local populations might choose not to host them (the cities of Boston, Hamburg and Oslo have all withdrawn from short-lists over the past three years).

The final example is Big Data.

The predictive ability of the algorithms that sit behind the transference of personal and bulk data between people - and increasingly between machines - has many benefits. It can lower insurance premiums for drivers, it can secure DNA matches for cosmetics, it help fight epidemics, track refugees and improve customer service. But it can also discriminate, invade privacy and also put at risk some of those vulnerable people we might be trying to protect. Although you can even sense the fatigue when I say it - the world needs some rights-based principles on how Big Data is collected, stored and transferred or else when the public backlash comes - and it will come - it will be too late.

These are just three examples that occupy the waking hours of my colleagues at IHRB. You will have your own. What links them is that all such endeavours must - at some point - route back to communities themselves and those who represent them directly. If we are to be successful with such collective multi-stakeholder approaches, then they too must accord to a set of principles that Thomas Paine himself might recognise if he were around today:

  • Navigate complexity but ensuring clear and transparent outcomes;
  • Understand everyones drivers and incentives - including the local communities that are the ultimate beneficiaries;
  • Establish pre-competitive and trusted space - between all actors, bringing businesses together with their competitors, governments with their rivals;
  • Make public commitments, establish milestones and disclose progress;
  • Remain open to reflection and learning.

How to do all of the above? Now there is a good question. It is going to be a lot of hard work and sometimes it will be very messy. But if it is worthwhile then it will indeed be worth the fatigue of supporting it.


The above is a précis of a speech given to the Arthur W. Page Society in London. This commentary was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Image: LinkedIn

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