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Future Perfect?

At the end of last year, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), a global think tank, published its annual top 10 list of business and human rights issues for 2016. Here we highlight four of the main trends particularly pertinent to the CR and sustainability professional

The need for bold leadership
Forced labour can be found in all industry sectors and all locations, with migrant workers, indigenous people and women particularly vulnerable. The term ‘modern slavery’ has mobilised action, says the IHRB, but it cannot detract from evidence that forced labour is frequently a more ingrained feature of the mainstream economy than imagined, facilitated by corrupt and unethical recruitment practices. The think tank believes that the debate will continue on whether stronger labour market regulation is needed to combine a level playing field for responsible business with effective protection for workers.

A test of international political will in 2016 is, it says, whether more countries follow the lead of Niger and Norway in ratifying the ILO Forced Labour Protocol. Agreed by ILO member states in 2014, this legally binding instrument requires governments to prevent forced labour, protect workers and provide remedy for victims. The ILO 50 for Freedom campaign is seeking at least 50 government ratifications by 2020 and supporting policy and enforcement activity.

Some governments have enacted specific legislation focused on tackling forced labour and human trafficking in supply chains. Support and pressure from business and civil society contributed to the UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act, which introduced new transparency and reporting requirements, tougher sentences for offenders and stronger compensation of victims. Now that guidance has been issued, from March 2016 companies operating in the UK with over £36m global turnover will be required to publish annual, board-approved statements to disclose steps they have taken to prevent ‘slavery and human trafficking’ occurring in any part of their businesses. Similarly, progress continues in harnessing the purchasing power of public procurers to develop the market for ethical products and services (such as in amendments to the US Federal Acquisition Regulation).

The IHRB says that one way that companies can demonstrate leadership and commitment is by banning recruitment fees paid by workers. Adopting the ‘employer pays’ principle, as a number of leading companies have already done, would be a major step in preventing exploitation and reducing the risk of forced labour, it maintains: “More concerted efforts will be needed in 2016 to make such actions a common standard for all major companies.”

The growth and significance of Big Data
The advent of “big data”, where large datasets are analysed to provide insights into a particular topic, and the “Internet of things”, where an increasing number of devices and appliances are connected to the Internet, means that personal data is the new currency, collected and traded. As a result, implementing safeguards for privacy and other rights becomes more challenging, highlights the IHRB.

While there are many benefits of “big data” for consumers as well as public health and society, questions remain over how to ensure effective privacy safeguards on the collection, storage, use and sharing of personal data. Innovations like “wearable” technology, which record and store health data, and facial recognition, that makes identification instant, are increasingly becoming standard in our social networking and raise new challenges for the ICT sector. In the years ahead, says the IHRB, all companies will effectively become ICT companies due to the reliance on technology to deliver services, such as automobiles, energy and even the oil and gas sector. What’s more, cities around the world are already making use of big data to manage traffic, energy, and the day-to-day business of government.

The more data companies collect the more others will want access to it, raising hard questions on how to secure personal information from theft or attacks. High profile cases of data breaches in 2015, including TalkTalk, Ashley Madison and Experian, all signal what is likely to follow in 2016 and beyond.

More available data also creates more opportunities for surveillance and profiling, which could lead to discrimination.

At present, there is low public awareness on the part of both business and civil society on how big data can affect the right to privacy, warns the IHRB: “There is minimal guidance available to help companies navigate this issue, and confusion over what kind of data is collected, how it is used and how it is stored. In 2016, IHRB will be exploring meaningful avenues for rights protection in an age of big data across a number of sectors.”

Climate change’s wider impacts
Global attention in 2016 will turn to making good on COP21 commitments. Leadership on climate justice must come from cities, countries, regions, intergovernmental organizations and business, says IHRB. Although one company’s contribution to climate change can be minimal, the combined impacts of business activities globally could make a difference. It is this diffused nature of responsibility for adverse climate impacts that makes it particularly hard for businesses to acknowledge their role in seeking climate justice.

The year ahead will test whether more businesses can scale up climate due diligence, GHG reporting, as well as innovation for and investment in climate solutions. Some companies are stepping up and taking initiative. For example, Unilever is tackling climate change in its supply chains, and IKEA has launched an initiative that supports communities most at risk. BSR in its We Mean Business report lists actions companies and investors can take to address climate change, while others are forming coalitions, such as the Breakthrough Energy Coalition for clean energy, inaugurated in Paris.

Indeed, the momentum created by the COP21 must continue to build in 2016 and beyond.

Implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals
With an ambitious new global agenda for sustainable development in the form of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in New York in September 2015, attention will shift in 2016 from high-level negotiations to implementation.

The SDGs offer an inspiring and inclusive vision of the future: a world free from poverty, injustice and discrimination and a healthy planet for present and future generations. They also assume a substantial contribution from business as a partner with the potential to contribute in multiple ways to development objectives: as financier, job creator, taxpayer, wealth generator and innovator. But the relationship between business and development – between private gain and public good – is not a straightforward one.

How the business and human rights agenda gains traction, as a crucial approach to implementing the new framework, remains an open question. As the SDGs move from pledges to practice, a wider and better-informed debate is needed around how and in what circumstances business can add the most value; business can be a good partner in delivering on the SDGs but it is not automatically one. If meeting the SDGs requires business involvement, then making business responsible must be a core part of implementation strategies, says the IHRB. The SDGs offer a real opportunity to help normalise and globalise corporate responsibility as a minimum requirement for business operations.

As SDG progress indicators are developed and reporting and review systems established, business performance measures are needed. Public-private partnerships have been earmarked as crucial to the delivery of the SDGs but are already a target of concern. Without transparency and accountability, without clear safeguards on the application of international standards, they risk sidetracking significant public funding without delivering on public goals.

Different players, from the World Bank to civil society organisations, as well as IHRB, are now coming forward with proposed partnership principles. The enthusiasm for partnerships as part of strategies to achieve the new agenda for sustainable development needs to be accompanied in 2016 by an SDG Framework for Responsible Business, maintains the IHRB.

For the full 2016 trends forecast see here


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