CSR and Human Rights
23 July 2009 at 1:14 pm
Most big Australian companies have a corporate responsibility program, but almost none have a comprehensive approach to incorporating human rights into their business practices according to a report by the Human Rights Commission.
The Commission reviewed the websites and annual reports of the top 100 Australian companies.
Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes announced the findings at the ‘Everyday People, Everyday Rights’ Human Rights Conference earlier this year hosted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
The study found that most of the corporate responsibility programs covered issues like:
– Environment and climate change.
– Workplace issues such as anti-discrimination, occupational health and safety, and labour rights.
– Community engagement and charitable giving.
– And, Indigenous employment and training initiatives.
Graham Innes told the conference that some of these areas are easily recognisable as human rights. But in general, the study found that only a small number of Australian companies explicitly talk about human rights as part of their corporate responsibility program, and fewer still have a stand alone human rights policy.
He says the companies that do explicitly mention human rights tend to refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or a few specific labour rights principles like freedom of association.
But he says it’s unclear whether they really understand what it means to say that ‘we comply with the Universal Declaration’.
He says it’s also unclear what they are doing to ensure compliance, since very few of them go into any detail or publicly report against human rights criteria.
He says having found that only a small number of Australian companies explicitly include human rights in their corporate responsibility programs, the Commission’s next step was to meet informally with people at some of the companies that do.
The discussions revealed that most Australian companies don’t understand how human rights are relevant to them, beyond what is required by domestic law. And, even in big Australian companies, where there is an interest in human rights issues and a will to take action, people don’t necessarily know how to go about it.
Innes says it became clear that more work needs to be done in Australia to:
– Educate the corporate sector on how human rights are relevant
– Translate human rights principles into a language they can relate to, and
– Integrate human rights considerations into everyday business practices.
The Human Rights Commissioner told the Conference that,there are four key messages that need to be spread.
The first is that Australian companies have a distinct responsibility to respect human rights. This responsibility to respect human rights (as opposed to a government’s responsibility to protect human rights) was recognised by the United Nations Human Rights Council last year, based on the work of John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative on business and human rights.
The second message is that complying with local laws is not always the same thing as complying with human rights. Many local laws in Australia and other countries fall short of international human rights standards – but many businesses don’t know this.
The third message is that human rights are relevant for all Australian companies – not just the more obvious examples like big mining companies.
The fourth message is that human rights can’t be segmented off to corporate responsibility teams or human resources staff.
Human rights should become part of the whole business practice. This means we also need to be influencing CEOs, managing directors and corporate boards.
Innes says the most important point that came out of the discussions with the corporate sector was that Australian companies need practical tools to help them integrate human rights considerations into their everyday business practices.
The Commission has developed four short factsheets for Australian companies outlining some basic steps they should take to incorporate human rights, and links to practical tools they can use.
The factsheets draw on the framework set out by the UN Special Representative, which describes the corporate responsibility to respect human rights as a matter of due diligence. What each company needs to do as part of its due diligence process will vary depending on the type of business and where it operates.
The fact sheets can be found at www.hreoc.gov.au