Whose business is human rights?
On the second day of my South African trip, we met with Abida, the researcher specialising in Africa for Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. This centre was founded by activists from Oxfam and Amnesty, who woke up one day and thought that given the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all companies, we should be properly holding them to account.
But why should companies care about human rights? If we look at it from their perspective, it gives them a more secure license to operate, improves their recruitment drive and reduces the risk of a boycott.
The resource centre’s model is a mixture of speed and balanced argument. Their success rate is phenomenal, 75% of the companies they write to when concerns have been raised, respond to them.
But why do companies respond to them? Well, there’s a big push for ethical investment but the BHRRC’s website gets 1.5 million hits per month, including over 6000 opinion leaders — the collective scrutiny of the crowds!
One spicy anecdote she revealed was when a company they had written to hit the “reply to all” button with the email “it seems that our next front with the global NGO efforts will be related to human rights”. It was designed to only go to colleagues, not to the resource centre as well!
We then had a discussion about we could make a difference here, something where we do need to increase attention is around tax dodging by multinationals and unfair contracts. Although there’s a development agreement between companies and governments, it has become apparent that companies are abusing their agreements, whether on tax, the environment or labour rights.
Another point raised was around to use WTO legislation to make access to medicines easier, especially through TRIPS — “if a country is in a medical urgency, governments can make generic medicines for free”. This is being used in Indonesia, so how could this be applied to other patents if we interpreted the spirit of the law?