Better Business for All: Six Ways Companies Can Integrate Human Rights

Companies across industries are improving human rights in the workplace, with benefits for workers, businesses and communities. New research offers insight for SMEs about to embark on the process
Feb 12, 2019 11:10 AM ET

Over the past decade, we have seen a remarkable rise in the value placed on human rights in the private sector – from a scenario where the ambitions of the business community and human rights advocates seemed irreconcilable, to one in which stakeholders have begun to approach a shared understanding of the risks, challenges, and opportunities involved. The UN human rights council’s endorsement of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (pdf) in 2011, the result of a long consultative process among companies, activists, governments and others, still represents the most historic breakthrough in the field of business and human rights to date.

Yet, despite the extraordinary progress made in recent years, there continue to be challenges and threats to human rights, some longstanding, some newly emerging. In recent years, businesses – more specifically tech businesses – have increasing influence over almost every area of human life. They own and manage the platforms through which we communicate, organise and meet, and run many formerly public services, including healthcare and utilities. Consequently, the decisions businesses make are having increasingly wide-ranging effects on human rights – from freedom of expression to privacy, liberty and security.

On the positive side, many in the business community are more focused than ever on the need to integrate human rights principles into their activities. Companies in the hospitality and construction sectors have joined the fight against human trafficking. Companies in the garment industry are actively engaged in improving poor working conditions in global supply chains; agriculture and food companiesare working to permanently eliminate child labour; and financial services companies are doubling their efforts to better understand their role as investors in addressing and mitigating these risks.

Many businesses rightfully see such integration as a source of opportunity, allowing them to attract and retain employees, consumers, and investors. While improved application of human rights standards in the workplace brings benefits, this must also be seen as a business imperative. The negative impacts of bad human rights practices are borne by the company in the form of reputational, financial, operational or even legal risks. In addition, local communities where businesses and their subsidiaries operate are also negatively impacted, as are employees and consumers.

While large companies have more resources to make the necessary changes to improve their human rights standards, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may encounter much greater difficulties when starting the journey from intention to action. To gain insight into this journey, Business Call to Action, in partnership with the non-profit organisation BSR, undertook in-depth interviews with seven SME leaders implementing inclusive business initiatives across a range of industries, including agriculture, food and beverage, transport and logistics, financial services, information communication and technology, manufacturing, construction and housing, and more.

By following these steps, a business can make significant strides towards improving human rights standards along its entire value chain, which can have dramatic follow-on effects in terms of employee job satisfaction, community support, and customer satisfaction.

If we are to succeed in advancing human rights worldwide, we must all share a responsibility to move from commitments to impactful everyday actions. And we must challenge ourselves to prevent abusive conditions from happening. Businesses must be prepared to understand their impacts and work with others to embed human rights in all they do until they become a universal reality.

Learn more about how to integrate human rights into inclusive business models through a new series of trainings from Business Call to Action and BSR. Email to find out more.