The Human Rights Questions We All Need to Ask Ourselves

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By Álvaro Ibáñez from Madrid, Spain (Amazon España por dentro) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Álvaro Ibáñez from Madrid, Spain (Amazon España por dentro) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

May 17, 2016, The Stranger

If not for The Stranger, a “decidedly independent” news outlet for the Seattle community, reporting on the very day of Amazon’s recent annual shareholder meeting, we might have never known that Amazon’s board urged its shareholders for the second year in a row to not analyze the company’s human rights practices.

The proposal put forth by the nonprofit SumOfUs (representing 45 Amazon shareholders) was especially concerned about minimum wage and paid sick leave and safe time issues. The grim New York Times exposé reported extensively about Amazon’s “experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.” The SumOfUs proposal also noted that Amazon ranked 144th out of 155 companies in a report on conflict minerals policies.

The Amazon board countered saying that the firm is committed to the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition’s Code for upholding the rights and wellbeing of workers and communities worldwide. The Stranger reports that though the shareholders voted down the SumOfUs proposal, 23 percent supported it compared to only 5 percent last year.

Globalization clearly presents new and complex challenges for the protection of human rights. Transnational corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Google, GE, and so many others operate with unprecedented power and privilege. Sometimes their impact is positive, as with job creation and new technologies that improve lives; other times, weak and poorly enforced regulations are exploited with devastating effect. There are few mechanisms in place to prevent human rights abuses and to hold the offending corporate players to account. Some of the same companies that lobby governments to ease investment, trade and tax laws are just as quick and determined to lobby against international standards that seek to protect human rights.

What does this look like today? Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations. In 1984, in Bhopal, India, 20,000 people lost their lives to the Union Carbide chemical plant leak; 25 years later, an Indian court finally convicted company employees for their role in the disaster.

Managing corporate human rights practices is a relatively recent initiative led primarily by the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB), the first ranking of companies on their human rights performance. CHRB’s leaders hope their research will inspire a “race to the top.” The UN also offers the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework.

A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) of senior corporate executives stated:

Companies overwhelmingly perceive a responsibility to respect human rights. Four-fifths (83%) of respondents say business is an important player in respecting human rights. In each of 11 clusters of human rights, a majority say their companies’ operations have an impact.

The “business case” for respecting human rights tends to rest on behaving ethically and maintaining good relations with employees and others, rather than on short-term risk management or financial considerations. The main driver is “building sustainable relationships with local communities” (48%).

Companies are still learning what their human rights responsibilities mean in practice. While most acknowledge the importance of the issue, 54% have no policy statement referencing human rights, and only 22% have a publicly available statement of policy on this issue.

The main barriers to addressing human rights are lack of understanding of responsibilities (30%), lack of resources (27%), and lack of training and education for all employees (25%).

Responsibility for respecting human rights tends to be diffused among departments, including corporate social responsibility, human resources, and strategy. Of all corporate functions and levels, CEOs were most likely to take the lead (44%) or to be actively involved (28%) in corporate human rights efforts.

NPQ readers need to look no further than to yesterday’s feature to apply this question about human rights to your management practices: “Is Exploiting Workers Key to Your Enterprise Model? Nonprofits and the New Overtime Requirements.” Search NPQ for articles about “human rights” and most of the stories apply to our own sector. Almost all of the more than 2,000 NPQ articles on “diversity” have to do with our own sector’s behavior. The New York Times makes it easy for us to condemn Amazon with takeaways such as, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.” But as NPQ editors and writers have urged through the years, and as the first sentence proclaims in this article entitled, “Five Human Rights Issues for U.S. Nonprofits on International Women’s Day”: “Human rights that extend beyond specific mission areas should always be on the front burner for action by U.S. nonprofit organizations.”

For at least the nonprofit sector, may we “race to the top” of respecting the human rights of all those we employ, serve and those in the wider communities where we have our impact and purpose.—James Schaffer