Companies must uphold human rights

If I were Attorney-General my overall goal would be to develop a greater awareness of human rights amongst all Australians and work towards the language of human rights being an important, but almost mundane, part of our everyday vernacular. I would start by focusing on human rights in the workplace. Australians like to think they are all about a sense of fairness and giving everyone a fair go but the manner in which many Australian companies operate their businesses both at home and abroad belies this concept. The interconnection between human rights and the corporate sector has been a matter of public debate for several decades now amidst growing concern over the social and environmental impacts of globalisation and the increasingly powerful role played by multinational corporations in the global economy. Despite this debate, and the increased awareness around the relevance of human rights to business, there seems an almost never ending supply of corporate irresponsibility stories (Australian companies included) that demonstrate the need for a holistic approach to addressing corporate rights violations.

In September this year a media expose revealed that children as young as 10 in India were  making Sherrin footballs embossed with the AFL, Auskick, Channel Nine and The Footy Show logos and Canterbury rugby balls. It was revealed that Indian children are skipping school and working long hours – earning less than 12 cents an hour and not more than a dollar a day – to stitch sports balls that end up in the hands of Australian children.

This problem is not just an issue for the corporate sector but also one for the government. The Australian Government should flex its extraterritorial muscles to require companies headquartered in Australia to abide by international human rights standards regardless if their operations are based in Bougainville, Aceh, Mumbai or Guangzhou. The dissemination of the recently developed UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights should be a starting point, but the government should also seek to develop legislation that mandates a human rights due diligence process (essentially a risk assessment process) for all public companies that covers all of the companies’ operations throughout their supply chains whether based in Australia or offshore.

Another area for action is working with companies in the extractive sector. The Australian Government is currently considering whether Australia should join the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, an extractives sector initiative that addresses human rights risks associated with the security of companies' operations. Extractive companies operate in high risk environments and are often confronted with serious human rights issues such as loss of life, torture, rape, forced labour and environmental pollution.

The Voluntary Principles are an international, voluntary “soft” law initiative that aims to address these human rights-related risks. If it becomes a participating government, the Federal Government will be required to implement and promote compliance with the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights both in Australia and internationally. As a voluntary standard, a company can elect to become a signatory to the Principles. They are not legally binding in their own right but the participation of the Australian Government would send a firm signal that corporate responsibility for human rights is not optional. There is much that could be strengthened about the Voluntary Principles, including its monitoring and transparency mechanisms, and the Australian Government can and should take a leading role in this.

Adopting a more proactive approach to corporate responsibility also offers the Australian Government opportunities for greater synergy with its Asian neighbours.  ASEAN’s (Association of South East Asian Nations) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights has recently adopted corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a focus. At a “Regional Workshop on the ASEAN Action Plan on CSR” held in 2011, in which senior government officials from ASEAN Member States participated, it was made clear that CSR spanned different sectors and included “environmental, social, labour or human rights,” and that companies needed to progress from philanthropy to “a rights-based approach.” There are a variety of approaches being trialled in ASEAN countries at the moment with regards to developing a stronger sense of corporate responsibility for human rights both by companies and governments and, like Australia, there is much room for significant progress. ASEAN is even contemplating a possible regulatory role in relation to CSR which could provide a useful base in the region to develop a firmer framework for corporate accountability for human rights.

The primary responsibility for improving working conditions remains with government. In most countries, including Australia, there exists a substantial body of local laws that regulate (or have the potential to regulate) corporate activities that affect human rights, such as laws relating to anti-discrimination, health and safety at work, environmental protection, and labour rights. But in the world we live in, it is naive to assume all governments around the world have the will or, in some cases, the necessary means to monitor workplace standards, and it is not unusual to find local laws flouted without fear of repercussion. The Australian Government has a vital opportunity to take the lead in ensuring that Australian companies both at home and abroad eschew values of fairness and social justice by adhering to international human rights standards.

Justine Nolan is a Senior Lecturer and is the Deputy Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales.