Politics of Poverty

Antidote to denial: assessing human rights in the supply chain

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RS340044_Pineapple workers in Costa Rica
Many pineapple workers spend long hours in fields treated with hazardous chemicals. Oxfam

A new framework helps companies better evaluate the effect of their practices on the rights of workers and communities up and down the supply chain—and act on what they learn.

Determining your company’s impact on human rights isn’t an exercise in PR. At least, it shouldn’t be.

The corporations that extract vast wealth from the labor of impoverished workers around the world need to take an unflinching look at the results of their policies and practices—and share that information with shareholders and the public.

It’s called human rights due diligence.

A single company may have thousands of suppliers, and decisions made at headquarters level reverberate up and down the value chain. The prices they offer, the way they negotiate, their treatment of groups like women that are targets of discrimination in their communities—all have an impact on the people who supply their goods. Sometimes that impact constitutes a violation of rights, such as when it reduces the standard of living, impedes access to land, triggers displacement, damages the environment, exacerbates gender discrimination, interferes with freedom of expression, or involves any form of forced labor.

Some companies will do everything they can to avoid what they may see as a reckoning. For example, they may deflect pressure from shareholders by going through the motions of determining their impact on rights within their supply chain by undertaking light, check-box exercises and producing results that—no surprise—justify business as usual.

However, others want to do what they can to uphold human rights within their sphere. It’s these companies that are most likely to make good use of Oxfam’s newly published Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) Framework—a guide that will help companies adopt the right approach when it comes to identifying and addressing the adverse impacts of business activities on human rights.

Know and show—and act

A little background: in 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted what’s known as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). The principles spell out governments’ obligation to protect their citizens, companies’ responsibility to respect human rights, and communities’ rights to remedies for violations. It’s obvious from the reports we hear from communities around the world that many companies are not applying the UNGP in a meaningful way, but for some, it may be a matter of not knowing how to go about it.

The HRIA assessment framework—developed by Oxfam in collaboration with companies, business and human rights experts, and civil society organizations—tries to address the gaps in their knowledge.

It identifies the key elements of a robust HRIA, including: assembling a research team that has the right skills; choosing the right targets for research in the highest-risk supply chains; collecting data in respectful and responsible ways; ensuring that the views of the most vulnerable groups are represented; communicating clearly about the purpose of the research—and its findings—with participants; formulating recommendations that really address the problems that have been revealed, ensuring that researchers apply a gender lens to the issues; and creating a time-bound plan of action.

Further, the framework lays out minimum standards and best practices, and tips to help companies meet the criteria.

Upholding human rights is a win-win

To uphold human rights, a company needs to work by a set of principles, even when those principles seem to interfere in the short run with maximizing profits. But when companies become better global citizens, they may reduce major risks and experience improved relationships with suppliers—giving themselves a better shot at sustainability. In other words, upholding human rights in the supply chain is in a company’s best financial interests.

The first step is to conduct an honest assessment, and the HRIA framework is at the ready to make that assessment meaningful.

But there is no time to waste.

Why? Because violations of human rights are causing suffering every hour of every day.

Companies can turn a blind eye to the consequences of their actions, but when they take up the mantle of human rights, everybody wins.

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