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Businesses benefit where governments are unable or unwilling to protect human rights, right? Wrong

Carolyn Blacklock's picture



When one thinks of businesses operating in countries that are still struggling to protect and provide for human rights, a narrative can easily spring to mind involving unscrupulous businesses happily taking advantage of weak labor laws, a lack of minimum wage and poor environmental controls. But, in many places, the reality is very different. Not only is the private sector itself adversely impacted by weak human rights protections but, more than this, businesses are themselves having to take up a leadership role to compensate for weaknesses that exist at a national level.

Despite a fair bit of business-bashing, the 3rd UN Forum on Business and Human Rights earlier this month saw businesses unafraid to step up and restate their commitment to playing a leading role in implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Human rights provision and protection are essential for strong and well-distributed economic growth. Poor health among employees and their families, few affordable housing options and lack of education and skills training are not only human rights issues, but prevent businesses from operating to their full potential.
 
Earlier this year, we surveyed and interviewed more than 80 businesses in Papua New Guinea, as part of a study looking at the socio-economic costs of crime and violence. Papua New Guinea has one of the world’s highest rates of crime and violence, and violence against women is particularly rife. Businesses were clear about the impacts this has on their operations, citing issues such as lost productivity, lack of market access due to security concerns, high security costs absorbed and passed on throughout the supply chain, to name just a few.
 
PNG businesses have been talking with the government and trying to help to make policy and cultural changes. At the same time they have taken on a leadership role, helping to protect their employees from human rights deficits in the following ways:

  • Local staff are transported to and from work to reduce their risk of becoming victims of crime and violence en route from home to the workplace. Many firms operate their own internal bus transport fleet, dedicated to home-to-work pickups and drop-offs.
  • Measures are taken to protect female staff from special risks. Firms noted that security in getting to and from the work place is paramount for female staff, and that women’s safety and welfare was also at-risk due to the extreme levels of domestic violence nationally. Male and female staff receive training on general well-being and health awareness, domestic violence, and sexual and reproductive health. 
  • Some businesses even reported providing onsite heath and trauma treatment centers for employees and family members, with the majority of cases relating to assault and domestic violence. Many firms said they operated a no-tolerance policy towards harassment of female staff and dismissed staff who had been involved in acts of violence. 
  • On-site barracks and dormitories for employees, and in some cases their families are offered by some businesses. These are not without their own social problems, but companies invest in these in order to help employees in areas where there are few affordable housing options.
  •  Offering savings schemes and at-cost loans to employees is valuable as access to credit and other financial services is non-existent or highly expensive for the average person in PNG. Many people need to borrow money to pay for incidental expenses, such as sickness and death of family members or additional school costs. 
  •  Provision of skills-training and continued education services to employees is considered essential by many companies as weaknesses in the education system mean that finding sufficient numbers of employees who are functionally literate, numerate and skilled can be difficult.
These efforts, and others that are being made by businesses to help provide and protect their workers’ basic human rights are not simply ‘bottom-line’ decisions but they do help, leading to improved employee productivity and staffing stability.

This, of course, comes at a cost. Business involved in the study said they incur large costs to manage the impacts of crime and violence, and said it hampered further investment and expansion. Of businesses we interviewed, the majority said that the violence and law and order situation in Papua New Guinea prevented them from offering new goods and services, expanding into new areas, and that they ended up passing on at least part of the additional costs to consumers.

Ultimately, when human rights provision and protections are missing or impaired the impacts are far-reaching and everyone is negatively affected – including business. In Papua New Guinea, we found business to be playing a leading role, finding innovative solutions and filling-in gaps – something that should be considered when we are looking for solutions to national and global human rights issues.