Politics of Poverty

Obama’s missed opportunity to rein in corporate abuses

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Oxfam-supported rice farmers in Cambodia. Food and beverage companies source large amounts of their raw materials from smallholder farmers around the world. (Photo: Patrick Brown/ Oxfam America)

New US National Action Plan does little to acknowledge or mitigate corporate abuse at home or abroad.

Over five years have passed since the UN Human Rights Council passed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and with more recent calls and guidance from  the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights for states to implement the principles through National Action Plans. In September 2014, President Obama announced that the United States would develop such a plan, and more than two years later after many recommendations from interested stakeholders on what the plan should include, we have it, but it does little to address those recommendations.

There could not be a more important time to rein in corporate power and abuse with the Trump administration about to take over. This new administration is already shaping up to be a who’s who of corporate big wigs—from Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, to fast food giant Andrew Pudzer, to steel industry magnate Wilbur Ross. And yet, the plan the Obama administration took two years to release has little in the way of new commitments to mitigate or rein in corporate abuse. It’s primarily a collection of all the initiatives already in place that touch on the topic.

This is more than unfortunate, it is a missed opportunity to actually put individuals and communities who are adversely affected by corporations’ activities on a level playing field with multi-national companies doing business around the globe and here at home. It is also a failure of our government’s duty to ensure that human rights are respected here in the United States when it comes to corporate actions.

Take the case of farmworkers in the United States. These workers grow our food, labor long hours, are exposed to pesticides and other harmful chemicals, and perform backbreaking work for low wages. Many of these workers are undocumented but even those who are citizens are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act which provides for overtime and other important worker protections. This is a significant gap in US law and fails to protect a whole class of workers that are particularly vulnerable to corporate abuse and experience it on a daily basis. This and the many other gaps in our laws are not mentioned or discussed in the US National Action Plan.

According to the UN Working Group’s guidance on publishing National Action Plans , governments should “get an understanding of adverse business-related human rights impacts” and “identify gaps in State and business implementation of the UNGPs.” Neither of these aspects have been included in the US National Action Plan. On the contrary, the US plan seems to go out of its way to indicate that US companies are leaders on Responsible Business Conduct though numerous reports have highlighted clear failings in the global supply chains of US businesses, such as the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh and slavery in seafood scandals, not to mention numerous human rights violations by US extractives companies here in the US and abroad. None of these shortfalls are mentioned or discussed and few if any of the new commitments made in the US National Action Plan will help to address these issues. In fact, the US plan does little to articulate the administration’s expectations for respect of human rights by US corporations whatsoever.

This would be unfortunate at any time, but now more than ever. The few initiatives that Obama has put in place to hold corporations to a higher standard, such as overtime for employees of federal contractors are already on a hit list by the incoming Republican majority. Had the Obama administration outlined its expectations of companies for responsible conduct and upholding human rights, and analyzed where gaps exist in the US legal framework that prevent corporate abuses and ensure accountability, the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress would have to affirmatively reject it. Instead, the bar has been set low, giving Trump’s corporate cabinet little in the way of a roadmap for how to drive responsible business forward or how they’ll be held to account for not doing so. But if there is one upside on the business and human rights front it is seeing the outpouring of support by civil society against the Dakota Access Pipeline—perhaps this movement and others like it will remind both the Obama and Trump administrations that it is by the people, for the people.

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