Integrating CSR Blueprint To Steer Companies Towards Human Rights Advocacy

"Similar to CSR programmes, where we utilise data management systems and audits to keep track from inception to final outcomes, a similar model can be implemented in upholding human rights policy," says Gayatri Divecha, Head CSR & Sustainability, Godrej Industries & Associate Companies


Companies are increasingly aware and proactive on their far-reaching role in promoting and upholding Human rights in their operations and the supply chains. While companies begin to navigate this path, adopting learnings from the CSR model can help make this path easier.

India has roughly 4.74 million contract labours formally employed with industries. Going by recent trends, contractual labour, gig economy will continue to see an uptick. Now, that's definitely something to cheer about, but it also throws a bunch of important questions into the mix like how do we keep our workers safe, and treat them right? That's where businesses can really show their muscle.

As a business when we talk of worker welfare, their treatment or simply put their human rights, the focus tends to be on the employees and the communities nearby where the manufacturing plant or a business might be based. But as businesses increasingly rely on and hire contractual labour, the welfare of these workers is also gaining importance.

Companies all over are starting to get involved in human rights adoption, making sure everyone in their business value chain is treated with the respect they deserve. Regulatory and reporting requirements also mandate businesses to account for, protect and improve their impact on the human rights of those associated with the business.

While the global and national framework with respect to Human Rights is fairly evolved, there still exist discrepancies among countries. For example, in Nigeria the minimum age for full time employment is 14 years with regulated work hours in mining and manufacturing after 16 years of age. Whereas the International Labour Organisation (ILO) sets the permissible working age at 15 under its ILO Convention No. 138. This is just one of the several examples which highlight the need for businesses to step in and share the load of protecting the human rights especially of the vulnerable sections.

There are many ways to ensure that the last person in the value chain is aware of their rights and that human rights is a strategic business decision rather than just a compliance. One of the ways among many others is to adopt learnings from the CSR approach into human rights.

Leveraging Technology

A human rights policy, its thorough execution and backing for the policy across leadership levels can be achieved by leveraging technology. Similar to CSR programmes, where we utilise data management systems and audits to track the CSR programme from inception to final outcomes of the project, a similar model can be implemented in upholding human rights policy.

Building a technology platform where employees can upload their grievances (anonymously if they want) and view the status of their complaints can be a great starting point and helps improve transparency. However, such a system could be exclusionary for blue collar workers if they are not well equipped with using mobile apps or portals, which is likely given that only 38 per cent of households in India are digitally literate. In that case, hosting a physical complaints or feedback box where workers can lodge complaints, would prove more beneficial. The complaints lodged should be redressed following an SOP and in a timely manner. Another related and extremely crucial question is of the adjudicating authorities, how and who oversees the human rights violation cases. A diverse and inclusive body should be set up internally free of any vested interests to resolve Human Rights violation cases.

Enforcing Accountability through Legal Framework

Since 2014, CSR has been added as a mandatory provision under the Companies Act of 2013. Business followed suit with establishments of CSR committees, CSR teams and board representation of the social sector. Emulating such a legal push and backing for human rights for business will ensure that industry follows through. The BRSR framework under the Principle 5 requires the reporting of details from companies on their efforts to protect and uphold the human rights, which is a positive move. We need to substantiate this with a legal backing in the form of a law that mandates businesses uphold and report on their impact on human rights of their employees, extended value chain and nearby communities; similar to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

Engaging & Informative IEC

Speaking to people about their rights in the form, language they understand is extremely important and can lead to behaviour change. For instance, at a construction site with migrant labourers who are illiterate, it makes no sense to put up posters on Human Rights in English or any other language. What would make more impact is to speak to the workers in a language and form they understand. This translates to speaking in local languages, adopting entertaining and engaging ways to spread the message like nukkad nataks or other audio-visual formats. Further, it is an added bonus if there is a team member on the site the workers can confide in and who can converse in their local language. This can be coupled with trainings on what is human rights, what constitutes as a violation of human rights and where can one seek remedy.

These approaches couple with external, third-party human rights impact assessments are crucial as they show commitment and offer a pathway for companies to identify and improve on blindspots.

An example is Meta whole completed and published their extensive human rights impact assessments for locations like Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, India and Philippines. They have also detailed the implementation status of the recommendations from these assessments. Some of the initiatives undertaken by Meta include end to end encryption of messages, deploying more local staff to review local content and local policies, updating their bullying policy and deploying in built technology to detect hate speech, child pornography, nudity thereby reducing dependence on user reporting/flagging of such content. The assessment offers an avenue to identify such issues that may go unseen and help to understand and rectify the adverse effects of business, if any, on the workers and nearby communities.

However, it is not an easy ride. Within our experience as a business with global presence, codifying a standardised human rights policy can also be challenging due to the variance in national laws and international frameworks, similar to the working age dilemma we saw in the beginning of this piece. Acknowledging these challenges is half the job done, and staying dedicated to improving on these factors is important.

The emphasis on human rights is a golden opportunity for businesses to build a more equitable and sustainable society. Companies are increasingly being scrutinised for human rights in their operations, with financial and reputational implications associated with it. Adopting and learning from the CSR model among others can help companies navigate these risks and set themselves apart as industry leaders.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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