Our guest blogger, Jon Barnes worked on ETI’s guide to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Here, he summarises the talk he gave at our breakfast briefing on the role of business in achieving the SDGs – and reflects on the discussions that followed.
How can the SDG’s ostensibly ambitious global agenda with mutually reinforcing goals on issues such as poverty, inequality, gender, discrimination, sustainable production and consumption, peace and governance be brought down to earth?
Opportunities for worldwide action
Tangible opportunities exist to make a difference on ethical trade and workers’ rights. At the heart of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is SDG 8 advocating ‘full and productive employment and decent work for all’.
With specific targets on issues such as equal pay, eradicating modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour, as well as labour rights and safe and secure working conditions, SDG 8 is a rallying point for businesses, unions and civil society organisations alike.
The UN, drawing on national progress reports by governments, will be holding annual reviews of SDG progress, with SDG 8 targeted for strategic discussion in 2019 alongside SDG 10 on inequality and SDG 16 on ‘peace, justice and inclusive and accountable institutions’.
The first heads-of-state summit to follow-up on the 2030 Agenda since its 2015 approval will also be held in 2019, which is also the International Labour Organization centenary year.
Such developments suggest the 2030 Agenda is a major opportunity to galvanise business practice and policy action worldwide on workers’ rights, based on an understanding of the interrelationships across the SDGs.
Indeed, SDG 8 is both a vital goal itself and a means of delivering other SDGs. Its achievement, in turn, also relies on supportive action being taken on other goals such as SDG 5 on gender inequality.
Of critical note, for example, given the discrimination and abuses affecting female participation in supply chains is the UN’s launch of a high-level panel of experts on women’s economic empowerment. Its first report has strong coverage of women workers’ rights.
An important starting point for stakeholders, therefore, is to map how their current operations relate to the SDGs and how such efforts should be adjusted and strengthened in the light of the opportunities and challenges they pose.
But big challenges undeniably lie ahead.
Growth and workers' rights and rewards: putting the flesh on the bones of SDG 8
One issue requiring renewed debate and attention is the nature of economic growth and whether existing policies and strategies – and business models – are effectively enhancing workers’ rights and rewards.
Supportive action on living wages, workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining – key aspects of ETI’s Base Code – are indispensable for realising SDG 8’s purported connection between growth and ‘decent work’.
But these issues receive no explicit attention in SDG 8’s targets, and whether indicators to track progress being developed at national and UN levels will do so is unclear. This gap prompts worries that some see the SDG 8 benefits of growth as a trickle down process confined to the number, rather than quality, of jobs created.
It will be up to actors committed to workers’ rights and ethical trade to put flesh on the bones of SDG 8.8’s important overall pledge to protect labour rights. This should also be an urgent priority in view of the rising hostility and restrictions facing trade unions and civil society groups globally. Encouraging signs of business concern and arguments to tackle these dangers must be supported and built on.
Harnessing responsible business conduct to the SDGs
A fundamental way companies can support the SDGs, capitalising on the business relationships and potential multiplier effects of supply chains is to make responsible business conduct upholding human rights an integral aim of operations. This includes adopting the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which the 2030 Agenda identifies as a ‘means of implementation’ on the SDGs.
A strong push is needed to ensure that increasingly strong commitment to UNGP implementation is achieved and harnessed to SDG pursuit and progress reviews.
International business groups and initiatives, most recently the UK-based Business and Sustainable Development Commission, have invoked the need for such UNGP-SDG links to be made. So too has the OECD, the policy mainstreaming think tank of the major industrial countries, in pinpointing responsible business conduct as a key pathway for SDG achievement.
Yet much discourse surrounding business, despite the energy invested by companies in the UNGPs’ uptake since their 2011 endorsement, remains too centred on the SDGs as a new commercial opportunity rather than how business must strive to uphold human rights as a bottom-line SDG performance requirement. A change of emphasis is needed.
Stronger dialogue between actors in the development and human rights communities would help, so as to foster strategic linkages between often specialised research and advocacy on the SDG and business and human rights agendas. ETI’s session, bringing together speakers straddling these fields, provided a lead of sorts to be built on.
Centrality of the private sector and boosting the support of governments
Enthusiasm for the envisaged centrality of the ‘private sector’ should not detract either from the need for governments ultimately accountable for SDG delivery to create the conditions in which linked UNGP-SDG progress can be made. After all, individual businesses cannot by themselves tackle structural problems such as forced labour.
Policy intervention is required so as to create a level playing field that recognises and rewards good business practice and prevents poor players gaining an unfair competitive advantage. For too long the assumption has been that business is hostile to public interest regulation. How policy can support SDG delivery, and what role business can play, is likely to become a focus of growing stakeholder debate and action.
ETI has noted positive signs of state action on the UNGPs, as with transparency reporting under the UK’s Modern Slavery Act or legislative moves promoting business due diligence on human rights in other countries. Such developments, however, have required considerable outside stakeholder pressure to emerge. A push is currently being made to promote coordinated international G7 and G20 action on supply chain problems in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh.
Keeping up momentum: global uncertainty and warning signs
Amid global economic uncertainty and shifts in approaches to international trade and investment, there is no guarantee decision-makers will sustain and boost positive momentum. Warning signs exist that policy-makers are prioritising narrower approaches to growth, with human rights considerations again in danger of being seen as a cost to business rather than an investment in communities and their social licence to operate.
US legislation to tackle the trade in conflict minerals, for instance, is now under threat. In the UK fears exist that Brexit negotiations will lead to a competitive race to the bottom on social, environmental and human rights standards, though some caution this would mean squandering the value of the UK’s international efforts to date and be a disincentive.
The UK was the first G7 country to introduce a national action plan on the UNGPs, and other countries in the global North and South have been following suit. Yet the Department for International Development’s recently launched economic development strategy fails to mention the NAP and outline its relevance to the SDGs, despite some degree of attention to responsible business and references to workers’ rights.
As international aid donors step up efforts to promote the role of private finance and investment in achieving the SDGs, they must link their support to effective adherence to human rights standards both to avoid business harms and ensure development benefits for people.
Jon Barnes, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Human Rights and Business, is a freelance analyst, writer and editor and drafted ETI’s guide on the SDGs. He writes in a personal capacity.