High Risk Zones

Increasing Access to Business Practice is Key to Scaling Respect for Human Rights

Commentary, 18 October 2018

By Catie Shavin, Director, Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI)

Finding effective ways to talk about human rights with colleagues is a common challenge confronted by practitioners working in companies to drive implementation of respect for human rights. 

Whether these discussions happen within one’s immediate team, with colleagues in different parts of the business or with senior leadership, human rights can be a difficult subject to talk about.

Many people nowadays have a general sense of what human rights are. But the connection between business and human rights is not always intuitive. For some, the term ‘human rights’ invokes images of conflict and violence, while others think of campaigns to combat discrimination or promote same-sex marriage. The reality is that human rights challenges are diverse and can play out very differently in a business context.

Talking about human rights with colleagues

The Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI) recently launched its Business Practice Portal, providing free, online access to real-life examples of company action, helpful videos and practical insights from our members – a group of 18 of the world’s leading multinational corporations who are committed to implementing respect for human rights. 

Initiatives offering public access to evolving business practices will be key to enabling human rights due diligence at scale in the coming years.

There's no one right way to approach talking about human rights.

Hearing stories from peers about, for example, how they began an internal conversation about human rights – can strengthen practitioners’ confidence to get started and their ability to be effective. And for those grappling with complex challenges, building on others’ lessons learned about what works and what doesn’t can be invaluable.

There’s no one right way to approach talking about human rights.

What works best will vary depending on company culture, geographic region and colleagues’ familiarity with their company’s human rights responsibilities. But it can be helpful to hear how others have approached this. That’s why we included a video on the Portal featuring GBI members discussing how they talk about human rights with their colleagues and other material on raising awareness, training and building capacity.

One helpful tip is shared by Ron Popper, Co-Chair of GBI (and former Head of Corporate Responsibility at ABB). He explains that in some parts of the world, it can be more effective to talk about individual issues, such as health and safety, workers’ rights and dormitory conditions as a way to expand understanding of human rights risks within a business. 

Addressing modern slavery

Developing effective responses to complex and systemic issues is a key aim of the new Portal. One such issue is the risk of involvement in modern slavery, which has become a high priority for many companies around the world. 

Many companies are demonstrating leadership, but it can be hard to find effective ways to respond to such problems. 

Regulatory instruments, such as the UK Modern Slavery Act and the Australian Modern Slavery Bill, new initiatives, such as the Leadership Group on Responsible Recruitment, and increasing public focus on high-profile mega-sporting events have raised awareness of challenges linked to modern slavery – and the role of business in helping solve them. The pressure for companies to show that they know the risks – and are taking action – has never been stronger.  

Many companies are demonstrating leadership, but it can be hard to find effective ways to respond to such problems.

GBI members observe that sharing knowledge and approaches – and coordinating with others – is critical. We’ve added a page to the Portal dedicated to addressing modern slavery. Thispage includes videos featuring GBI members describing how their companies approach this challenge, along with practical insights for business practitioners. These emphasise the importance of looking at the whole system in which modern slavery occurs to identify smart actions. The videos also share tips on usingworker voice tools effectivelyand explore the value of collaborating with business partners and other key stakeholders.

Looking forward – improving access to business practice to drive change

In the seven years since the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, the business and human rights movement has seen real progress in efforts to implement corporate respect for human rights – particularly amongst leading companies. We’re a long way from realising the transformative vision of the UNGPs – but we’ve made a solid start. 

The fundamental challenge now is to scale up good practice and drive engagement amongst the ‘unaware, unable and unwilling’.

The fundamental challenge now – and as emphasised in the UN Working Group’s recent report to the UN General Assembly – is to scale up good practice and drive engagement amongst the ‘unaware, unable and unwilling’.

We need to meet this challenge as a matter of urgency.

For affected people and communities, the passage of time can be measured in adverse human rights impacts – many of which could be identified and prevented through the implementation of human rights due diligence. For companies, the proliferation of regulatory requirements such as the French Duty of Vigilance Law and the Australian Modern Slavery Bill create a strong driver for action. Laws such as these are requiring large numbers of companies to begin engaging seriously with human rights-related challenges. These companies need to rapidly build know-how and capability to meet new requirements and their stakeholders’ expectations.

But there’s a limit to how far and how fast companies can progress by acting alone. 

To speed up change, we need to improve practitioners’ access to each other’s practical approaches, insights and tips. More must be done to ensure everyone works together, so that strategies build on accumulated know-howand avoid re-inventing the wheel. 

The GBI Business Practice Portal clearly cannot achieve this on its own. But by boosting access to the experiences of our members, the Portal is – we hope – a useful tool and a step in the right direction. 

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