Time for businesses to walk the talk on human rights

There has been a huge bit of hype over corporate citizenship and its onus to protect the rights of workers in the past few years. Corporate Social Responsibility and its corresponding voluntary ISO 26000 standard, includes human rights as one of the metrics for good corporate citizenship. This vocalic buzz is indeed positive for workers’ rights in general as the spotlight and accountability increases in these cases.

But the reports from the media regarding the rights of workers are not really all positive. We have had the Foxconn episode, with poor worker conditions in the factories which manufacture Apple products such as the iconic iPhone. ‘Sweatshop’ labor has been the norm in the textile industry for some time, while the sports goods industry is not a stranger as well in this discourse on worker protection. From workshops in Pakistan to Bangladesh to factories on the Chinese East Coast to Indonesia, workers’ rights are flouted without any batting of an eye lid as many a documentary has demonstrated.

The reason for the reduction in workers’ rights and protection has been due to the commodification of labor into ‘a particular exchange value’ or a cog in the ‘value chain’. Classical Marxism again makes a comeback as an analytic instrument of theoretical analysis. The whole paradigm of outsourcing compounds the matter of responsibility of implementation of rights protection and adds layers of complexity in regulatory affairs.

In this hyper-charged age of globalization, trade barriers are broken down and manufacturing is globally distributed. Some firms like the sportswear major Nike does not manufacture anything of their own. They outsource everything, and different parts of their products are made by different suppliers, and someone else finally assembles the product. How do transnational brands ensure worker safety and fairness? Suppliers competitively bid for contracts often on the lowest value offering – the minimum bid. The problem is the minimum is not simply the best for the worker.

Due to globalization, transnational corporations move to unchartered territories in search for resources and new markets. For example, Chinese mining firms in Zambia are facing labor unrest for human rights violations recently. The question which arises here is: Are standards for transnational corporations the same across various jurisdictions – developing and the developed world? Is legal compliance the same in Zambia and London? The answer is sadly no, the institutional power of the nation state differs from the global south to the industrialized west. Nation states in developing countries are simply powerless in front of multinational corporations because of the sheer wealth and ability of the corporate behemoths.

In light of the limitations mentioned above, it is time to move beyond the rhetoric and walk the talk regarding human rights and to implement the tenets, in order to truly treat the human for what the human actually is, beyond the ‘user value’ determined by the corporation.

This article was published in the Green Business Times, on the 7th of November, 2011 (http://www.greenbusinesstimes.com/2011/11/07/time-for-businesses-to-walk-the-talk-on-human-rights/)

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