Cambodia crackdowns, Rohingya crisis: where business meets human rights

Increasingly, business is being asked to speak out and act on situations that appear to be essentially political in nature. Our Executive Director, Peter McAllister, reflects on the role of companies when government support for human rights is deemed problematic.

Recently, we at ETI have been asked to consider what if anything should be our reaction and that of our business members to the humanitarian crisis we see on our screens on the Myanmar Bangladesh border.

Or, even broader still, whether we think business has a role in commenting on the limitations that are being placed on the activities of civil society, trade unions and human rights defenders in a growing number of countries.

In some cases this is quite clear.

I have just left Cambodia.

Along with other institutions and a number of leading brands, I met with the government to express business concerns about draft laws that will affect the rights of workers but that do not currently meet international standards.

These issues directly relate to the ETI Base Code of labour standards and to the clear commitments many companies have made to responsible business practice on ethical trade.

So in that sense it is easy to see why we should intervene.

Companies starting to speak up

It is an admirable and growing trend that companies are willing to speak up in such situations.

And by doing so, to make it clear that without appropriate laws in place, it is more difficult (if not impossible for them) to meet the expectations of their customers and investors around ensuring decent pay and conditions for workers in supply chains.

The end result is to raise questions over such sourcing markets and the future of brands’ business commitments.

In the case of Cambodia, the government listened to our inputs and announced at the meeting a number of positive changes that are being put in place to address our concerns.

So far so good, although still too many companies do not speak up even on such obviously business-related issues.

Business and Rohingya refugees

What about a situation as complex as the one involving the people of Rakhine state in Myanmar?

I don’t profess to have a detailed understanding of the situation on the Myanmar Bangladesh border, or Rakhine state. I do believe that this problem has deep roots and is very complex.

What is not in dispute is that well over half a million people have been displaced, many are still trying to flee Myanmar and this is clearly a humanitarian crisis that demands international attention. 

As such, most businesses will probably think that whatever the causes, this is a political and humanitarian issue and not a business one – and that they should remain silent.

But are things ever as simple as that?

If the rights of a specific group of people are being abused; if the law is bent to the service of one interest group over another; if political leaders do not seek to create an environment where people can live without fear; and where justice as both a process and an outcome is not protected, then surely this will affect business sooner or later?

UNGP advice

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) with its Protect, Respect and Remedy framework developed by Professor John Ruggie offers some useful advice for both nation states and companies.

Albeit more limited in the case of companies.

The Protect pillar clearly sets out that nation states have “existing obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms” and that this is a foundational principle.

Meanwhile, the foundational principle that relates to business states that: “Business enterprises should respect human rights. This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.”

Of course, this could be interpreted to mean that business should only engage in situations “with which they are involved”.

However, the Guiding Principles also go on to explore the wider role of business when human rights are not functioning effectively.

Some words of warning here –the advice is not cut and dried or even very detailed, although the UNGPs are clear on two things. Business should not contribute to problems and should definitely avoid contributing to human rights harm in difficult contexts such as armed conflict.

Due diligence 

Businesses sourcing from Myanmar may feel very detached from the problems in Rakhine state; we know, for example, that our members are not operational there.

But, they need to ask, how are we assessing the human rights situation and its implications for us in this conflict-affected area?

As set out in the UNGPs, experience shows that companies can and do infringe on human rights where they are not paying sufficient attention to risks and how to reduce them.

Here’s some very specific questions that businesses should be asking themselves.

  • Are our, or our suppliers, actions affecting the human rights of others, either positively or negatively?
  • Are Rohingya or other minority groups prevented from accessing jobs or discriminated against in the workplace?
  • Are communities around business operations affected by the crisis?
  • Are security forces involved in protecting or even owning business properties or factories themselves?

These questions might even stretch to considering what a company’s corporation taxes are actually used for. 

What is clear is that the situation calls for much more advanced and rigorous human rights due diligence than would normally be expected i.e. undertaking detailed risk assessments and making a commitment to action on mitigating those risks.

Where there is no connection to a businesses’ supply chain or operations, and where they are sure they are not involved in rights violations, there is no obligation to speak out.

This does not however mean that businesses should not.

Business lobbying

Let’s be honest, businesses and business associations actively lobby governments for favourable laws all the time. This might relate to land, tax, trade etc.

This is not inherently good or bad, although many would argue that such lobbying often lacks transparency and therefore lends itself to the accusation of risking abuse of power and access.

If business is prepared to lobby for wider conditions that are positive for business, should they not also be expected to speak out when human rights are being systematically eroded, or worse?

Is this not just enlightened self-interest for responsible business?

Context is key

I have come to the conclusion that while there have almost certainly been occasions when businesses could and should have spoken up when they remained silent, each case does need to be looked at very carefully.

Furthermore, an individual company, unless in a unique situation, should think very carefully about whether to speak up alone.

It will almost certainly be more effective to act as part of a business association, or better still with organisations that are set up to defend and uphold rights, such as trade unions or multi-stakeholder initiatives like ETI.

So what did we decide in the case of Myanmar?

We have hosted conversations with members – both businesses and trade unions – to consider what we know about the situation and whether it would be genuinely valuable to articulate and act on concerns at this time.

Our decision, currently, is that it is better to keep a watching brief.

This situation is far removed from the business activity of our members, which are primarily in the garment sector and there is considerable international engagement.

However, as I have already stated, in Cambodia we reached a different conclusion. And in Myanmar thinking may change in future as circumstance develop or alter.

Making a real difference

We created the opportunity  to meet the Cambodian Minister of Labour and Vocation Training, HE Ith Sam Heng, and senior officials at the Ministry of Commerce to raise concerns over specific laws that will directly affect the rights of workers in the supply chains of the companies concerned.

But we also observed that the wider deterioration of civil and political rights, not least of trade unions, is also of concern to responsible business.

Although the reaction of Cambodia’s Labour Ministry has been positive to the specific issues raised by ETI among others about draft laws, we have to be realistic in our expectations that this intervention will make the difference to the wider political and civil space.

All we can currently say is that it may well add weight to the right side of the scale and we can be clear that we tried.

Yet, what is also clear is that in a difficult and complex world, where business plays a significant role in so many ways, it is plain that companies need to take a greater interest in the environment in which they operate.

This includes, in my opinion, the political and civil environment.

I therefore hope that we will see more occasions when responsible business speaks up on things that matter to wider society

A society where, we should not forget, companies play an important part and on which their continued success depends.

ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.