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Overcoming barriers to engaging with human rights
by Richard Welford  rwelford@csr-asia.com
12 Jul 2017

It seems like never a day goes by without there being media coverage of human rights abuses including human trafficking, forced labour, modern slavery, child labour, discrimination against women and persecution of minority groups. We continue our ongoing work on the need to get businesses more involved with some of the challenges they face in their supply chains. It has become increasingly clear that in many industries, deep down supply chains where traditional social compliance auditors rarely visit, there are many challenges remaining.

Changing legislation coming from more and more countries is forcing companies to address modern slavery amongst other forms of human rights abuses. Many companies are well aware of the risks associated with human rights abuses and are beginning to engage with these enormous challenges. But it is still worrying to see other companies who are not engaging in the issue and are essentially shirking their corporate social responsibilities and taking huge risks that may end up causing he reputation damage as well as possible economic liabilities.

Amongst those companies that are reticent to engage with human rights issues, common responses to human rights challenges include the following reactions:

  1. Denying that there is a problem: Although there is mounting evidence that deep down supply chains there is often modern slavery, companies feel that it is not occurring in their own supply chains and that the problem is often overstated by journalists who are looking for sensational stories. Yet the facts demonstrate very clearly that in Asia, human rights abuses are prevalent in many sectors.

  2. Engaging in human right issues means admitting that there is a problem: A “head in the sand” approach is certainly something that we have experienced. If a company engages in a strategy to minimise risks associated with human rights abuses, then there must be a problem.  Therefore, the strategy seems to be to not engage and ignore the problem. But the fact is that such an approach is futile and is like to get an angry response from those many organisations that are now clearly documenting human rights abuses in many supply chains.

  3. Arguing that current initiatives have the problem covered: Even where there is an acceptance of the potential for human rights abuses, some companies think that because they have codes of conduct and audits of suppliers then this mitigates that risk. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most audits are of first tier suppliers where there is actually a lower risk of human rights abuses, whereas the real problem is all the way down the supply chain in primary industries including agriculture, extractives, fishing and forestry. It is more likely that you will find children working in fields, than in factories, for example.

  4. Feeling helpless to act: For some businesses, the problem seems too big to manage. They know that there are risks and have read of the reports of modern day slavery in many industries. Yet, with limited budgets and competing demands on time, many feel that there is simply not much that they can do. Try telling that to a Chief Executive when your brand is all over the media for using slaves!

  5. Shifting the responsibility for the problem:  Businesses feel that problems deep down the supply chain are beyond their sphere of influence and is therefore not part of their responsibility. They point to the need for better regulation and tougher implementation of existing regulations and firmly point the finger at government for not doing enough. Whilst this might be part of the solution, the private sector cannot absolve itself from the responsibilities it has to ensure that products are slave free and given the poor governance of government in the region, not much is likely to happen fast if this is the approach taken.

  6. Engaging in human rights issues will attract the attention of NGOs: Businesses feel that to admit to a problem, engaging with issues and putting in place a human rights strategy will attract the attention of NGOs who will then attack them. Yet such businesses need to realise that NGOs are now increasingly sophisticated and want to actively work with the private sector to address issues around modern day slavery. Indeed, it is those companies that are not willing to address issues in their supply chain that with incur the wrath of NGOs. Those companies who fail to address human rights issues are going to be the ones who run the risked of being named and shamed in the international media.

It is clear that stakeholder concerns over human rights abuses are on the increase. There are more consumers now also raising concerns about whether products have been tainted by modern day slavery. As part of any sound risk reduction strategy, it would seem important that any business assesses its exposure to human rights risks and begins to think about how to engage with those risks.

Where modern slavery, human trafficking and other forms of human rights abuses are found deep down supply chains the solutions are far from clear, but denying there is a problem, avoiding one’s responsibilities or shifting the responsibilities onto others simply will not wash. Companies are increasingly going to have to accept the problem, recognise risk and act. The question is how best to act and as a minimum they should consider:

  • Assessing human rights risks along the supply chain and how they can impact on products, brands, reputation and legislative requirements

  • Accepting that there is no easy solution to dealing with human rights violations deep down supply chains, but that ignoring them is not an option

  • Engaging with industry-wide initiatives that can begin to examine the root causes of human rights abuses and begin to work on common standards and initiatives to mitigate the risks associated with modern day slavery

  • Partnering with the NGO community where significant expertise on human rights issues exist and begin working on solutions to dealing with the underlying causes of modern slavery (including poverty, discrimination, refugees and vulnerable groups)

  • Being part of a wider movement on protecting the human rights of vulnerable people and advocating for more effective responses from governments and other regulatory agencies


This year’s CSR Asia Summit will have a strong focus on supply chains and human rights challenges. A number of sessions will include consideration of trafficking, modern slavery, human rights risk assessment, women’s rights and a focus on child rights. More details can be found here.


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