When we think of corporate human rights violations, prominent child labour or slavery scandals are likely to leap to mind. However, human rights cases are not always clear-cut – and nor are they only a concern for large multinationals. Human rights protection is the responsibility of all businesses, with pressure to act coming from consumers, employees and governments.
ESCP Affiliate Professor of Governance, Law & Leadership Dr. Daniel Perlzweig explains how businesses can take concrete steps to protect human rights, particularly with the help of a human rights officer.
First of all, Daniel, how do you define human rights within a business context?
Daniel Perlzweig: In work and business, human rights legislation derives from the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When applied in the business context, these articles prevent child labour, modern slavery, non-discrimination and eviction, while securing occupational health, safety standards and adequate living wages.
Flowing from this, businesses keep in mind both ‘soft laws’, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) and hard laws, such as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, Norway’s Transparency Act, France’s Corporate Duty of Vigilance laws and the German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act. At a minimum, the EU recommends compliance with the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the eight fundamental conventions identified in the Declaration of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on Fundamental Rights at Work, and the International Bill of Human Rights.
Human Rights and environmental protection are becoming more prominent than ever, from an employer, an employee and a consumer point of view. These are truly pressing questions that are relevant for everyone.Dr. Daniel Perlzweig
When it comes to ensuring a safe working environment, most employers – and employees – are more familiar with another type of HR (human resources). Why should smaller- and medium-sized businesses be concerned with human rights?
Daniel Perlzweig: It’s a common misconception that human rights at work are something that only certain industries or large multinationals have to worry about. Nothing could be further from the truth! Global human rights laws affect everything from labour laws at the local level to dignity at work and minimum wages at the national level.
Whether the role is restricted to the monitoring of risk management or includes the creation and operation of holistic compliance management systems, there’s an increasing need for all industries to appoint a designated Human Rights Officer.
In the short term, HR Officers can help prevent reputational damage, bans and blacklistings. Long-term, this translates into improved brand image and a more compelling vision, as well as attracting right-minded talent in the global war for talent.
Future leaders today expect their employers to do things in the right way, to actively assume and deliver on social responsibility. In other words, people before profits.
What do the responsibilities of a human rights officer look like?
Daniel Perlzweig: Currently, the legal status of human rights roles in business depends primarily on the business location. In Germany, for example, the 2021 Supply Chain Due Diligence Act requires certain businesses to designate a person ‘responsible for overseeing risk management, for example by appointing a human rights officer’.
This means that the Human Rights Officer is empowered to monitor the risk management of human rights and environmental risks and provide an annual report directly to Senior Management. In other countries, a Human Rights Officer might actually be in charge of operating safeguarding measures directly, with all of the legal responsibilities that entails.
Adopting a human-centric approach will offer benefits in countless ways for any business.Dr. Daniel Perlzweig
To highlight the importance of this role, what are some recent cases of human rights violations within the workplace?
Daniel Perlzweig: Human rights violations at work aren’t always flagrant or clear-cut. Dormitories for temporary labour on both sides of the border between Germany and the Netherlands, the potentially forced labour of Uyghurs and the temporary workers on construction sites in the Middle East are just a few examples.
Another recent illustration of when human resources and human rights issues begin to blur is Elon Musk’s media-reported mass firing of Twitter’s human rights department, ostensibly to protect free speech on the platform. An internal issue, one might think – but the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights certainly seemed to think otherwise in an open letter to Musk in November 2022, remarking: “Respect for our shared human rights should set the guardrails for the platform’s use and evolution.”
Are there specific industries that benefit most from having a designated human rights officer or is it relevant for everyone?
Daniel Perlzweig: Human Rights and environmental protection are becoming more prominent than ever, from an employer, an employee and a consumer point of view. These are truly pressing questions that are relevant for everyone.
Everyone is familiar with so–called high-risk industries, like textiles, agriculture, food, and mining, but globally, one of the biggest threats to human rights is the risk of discrimination, child labour and forced labour – practices that, I’m sorry to say, can be found in many industries.
Fortunately, at the European level, we’re seeing evolving requirements like the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, drafts of the Corporate Supply Chain Due Diligence Directive, the ban of products made by forced labour, and new rules for deforestation-free products, which has a knock-on effect on countless industries.
With this in mind, ESCP has decided to offer a dedicated class and executive training under my chair of Governance, Law & Leadership, with experts Dr. Ulrich Hagel and Michael Wiedmann. The curriculum allows participants to become Certified Human Rights Officers, covering everything from global legislation to implementable tools, such as risk analysis tools and corporate measurement metrics, roles and responsibility matrices, codes of conduct, and relevant software and networks.
Sven Scheid, director of executive education at ESCP’s Berlin campus, and I are convinced that this program (which has successfully started) will deliver additional value for senior executives while highlighting one of ESCP’s key academic priorities: sustainability.
Finally, how can companies assess their own human rights approach to find shortcomings? What tools and policies can they use?
Daniel Perlzweig: To become a true champion for human rights, business integrity as a whole needs to become a priority. Knowing the risks of your own business area as well as your supply chain, having a clear and articulated strategy, and delivering ‘prevention & zero tolerance’ led by the right tone from the top, middle and bottom are essential – and also great reflexes for any business to have, regardless of size.
Transforming from a mindset of bureaucratic hurdle thinking to agile transparency and cutting-edge competitiveness through business ethics sounds like a tall order, but adopting a human-centric approach will offer benefits in countless ways for any business.
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