Corporate social responsibility and human rights guidelines have so far been based on soft law and have lacked legal enforceability. However, due to insufficient progress being made, countries such as England and France have introduced laws that require companies to take steps to prevent modern slavery and enforce due diligence in their supply chains.
EU regulations make due diligence mandatory for certain sectors. Legal developments are slowly changing the debate and that it is becoming more urgent for companies to anticipate and comply with these laws. Some practical tips for companies to comply with these laws, based on the UN guidelines for business and human rights and the OECD guidelines.
These business and human rights tips are important for all of the aforementioned developments. They are based on the mentioned legislation and guidelines, and every company shoold at least start with them. Better safe than sorry!
- Familiarize yourself with the expectations
The UN Guiding Principles for business and human rights or the guide Doing Business with respect for human rights, specially developed for companies, are mandatory readings. Human Rights@Work or other organizations have several experts who can explain this in more detail. These guidelines offer a process to comply with other codes and regulations and thus provide a good basis.
- Determine the most important risks
Note that this is not so much about the risks for the company, but the risks for the people whose rights may be violated in the making of a product or the provision of a service. Sometimes this requires a different way of looking. For large international companies, this can be a challenge. Some companies operate in more than a hundred countries and have tens of thousands of suppliers and sub-suppliers. A company is expected to know what risks exist in its main chains. Mapping risks at the first supplier is not enough. It may take time and money to determine this, but it provides the basis for any credible statement about respect for human rights. The new Non-Financial Information Decree also requires this. Priorities may be set.
- Talk to internal stakeholders
For many companies, the conversation with internal stakeholders is part of risk management. They ask internal stakeholders which risks they see. This is also important for human rights risks, but the stakeholders may differ. For their own international operations, it is important to talk to local employees and not just to management. It is important to hear from volnerable groups within the company (women, migrants, minorities, people with temporary contracts) whether their rights are being respected. Some knowledge is needed for the stakeholders to identify risks. Therefore, organize internal training.
- Talk to external stakeholders
External stakeholders are a good source of information. They see things that are sometimes not seen within the company. Think of customers, suppliers, but also of government, scientists, and civil society organizations. Local trade unions are also important external stakeholders. Where a conversation is not possible, at least delve into what the stakeholders may expect.
- Talk to people whose rights may be at stake
Specific to business and human rights is that it concerns people with rights. They know the most about compliance. This can be a challenge, but civil society organizations can be important partners for this.
- Form an internal moltidisciplinary team
Compliance with human rights is not the responsibility of a single department. Not of compliance, human resources, procurement, sustainability, corporate governance, or product development, but of all. Responsibility shoold lie at the board level, but all departments are needed for the implementation, possibly coordinated by an expert. Also, operational divisions, especially in high-risk countries, must be closely involved.
- Involve external expertise with business & human rights
Business and human rights is not just a matter of compliance. It goes far beyond that. It is about credibility and trust. Do internal and external stakeholders believe in the approach? Often, the knowledge and experience needed for this approach are not present within the company. Only a few companies can really create a position for this. It is important to hire the right expertise, which ensures a credible approach.
- Analyze the company’s responsibility
Are there human rights violations caused by the company itself (e.g. an employee is fired because she is pregnant), which the company contributes to (e.g. a supplier employs people in slavery-like conditions due to the desired fast delivery time), or is the company linked to it through the products of its relation (the drinking water of the local community is polluted with chemical waste from a supplier released during production)?
- Set the right priorities for business and human rights
No one expects a company to tackle everything at once. Setting priorities (e.g. addressing the biggest risks) is perfectly legitimate. However, there are clear expectations on how companies shoold prioritize, and some transparency about that is important. Prioritize the serious issues where they have the greatest impact, but also prioritize increasing influence where serious issues are concerned.
- Communicate clearly about the process and choices
Some companies believe they can only communicate once everything is in order. Then you usually don’t communicate about human rights, because you often don’t know if everything is in order. The new Non-Financial Information Decree now requires this. When a company has a good due diligence process on human rights, it is important to communicate the outlines. What serious risks does the company see and how will it address them? Who do you communicate with and how?
Human rights are increasingly high on the agenda. Expectations regarding companies are increasing, especially from government and civil society organizations, but also from customers and investors. These expectations are increasingly being translated into legislation, so it is important to start implementing them. The above tips help companies prevent many problems and provide a good starting point for developing an adequate mechanism that addresses problems before they become acute.