Companies Commit Human-Rights Abuses in America, Too

And yet Americans tend not to describe the exploitation that way. 

A 15-year-old girl works on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. (Human Rights Watch)

When we think about companies getting caught up in human rights violations, we tend to imagine far-flung lands with weak or repressive governments: Shell accused of complicity in the 1995 hanging of environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the military junta in Nigeria. Sweatshop conditions in garment factories in Bangladesh. Google and Yahoo compelled to censor search results or turn over user information in China. Cellphone manufacturers sourcing conflict minerals that fund warlords in the Congo.

But there are human-rights violations here at home as well. Failing to see them as such deprives us of a common language to talk about business’s impacts on society—positive and negative—and of a helpful framework for assessing risk.

Recent headlines indicate no shortage of business-related human-rights abuses in the U.S.:

  • Last week, The New York Times revealed that immigrant detainees are staffing the very detention centers where they are held—some run by private companies, others by the federal government—for 13 cents an hour. [Article 23, clause 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work.”]
  • Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting horrific working conditions for children farming tobacco in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. [Article 23, clause 1 as above; also Article 25: “Everyone has the right to education.”]
  • That same week, fast food workers staged protests in 150 cities across the country in the hopes of securing higher wages. [Article 23, clause 3: “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”]
  • Last week, Facebook announced that it would succumb to user anger about its opaque and fickle policies and give a “privacy check-up” to its users. [Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy.”]
  • Experts assert that human trafficking rises around the Super Bowl and other major sporting events, enabled by hotels, airlines, and other businesses in the travel industry. [Article 13: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement.”]
  • In 2013, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 93,727 private sector charges of discrimination during the last fiscal year. [Article 23, clause 2: “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”]

Human rights are clearly at risk in business operations in the U.S., but it is rare that companies or media frame such issues in human-rights terms. To be sure, human rights are at greater risk in countries where the rule of law is weak and there is less robust media and civil society to hold both governments and companies to account. But that does not mean that human rights are fully protected in Western countries—as I learned during my time with BP.

In 2005 I was working for BP, based in the company’s London headquarters. I was collaborating with colleagues around the world from Azerbaijan to China to Indonesia to Russia to develop a new human-rights guidance note that staff could use with people in and outside of the company to discuss what human rights means for BP in practical terms.

On March 23 of that year, BP’s Texas City refinery near Galveston exploded, killing 15 people and injuring 170 more. Needless to say, a lot of BP staff were consumed by the aftermath of the incident. But I was not one of them. The Texas City explosion was framed as an industrial accident—a horrific one, to be sure—but never as a human-rights violation and therefore not part of my portfolio.

Even if Texas City had forged a link between my work on human rights and the company’s U.S. operations, would that have made a difference? Is there any chance that my engaging U.S. colleagues could have helped prevent the Deepwater Horizon explosion five years later? Could embracing the primacy of human rights and commissioning impact assessments accordingly—as I was part of doing for BP in developing countries—have made a difference in the Gulf of Mexico?

It is impossible to say with certainty that it would have. But some companies are adopting a human-rights-based approach, realizing how helpful it is in managing risks to both their bottom line and their stakeholders. Yahoo now conducts human-rights impact assessments before launching new products in new markets to protect privacy and free expression. Nestlé had the Danish Institute for Human Rights conduct an in-depth study of its policies and practices in seven countries. There are new tools for and examples of companies integrating human rights every month.

While the language of human rights seems foreign to businesspeople at first, its universality is helpful to global companies seeking consistency across the many different countries and cultures in which they operate. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the authoritative list of 30 rights and freedoms—agreed to in the wake of World War II by a group of delegates that included representatives from China and Lebanon as well as France and the U.S.—that no party, including companies, can violate.

There is no Universal Declaration of Corporate Social Responsibility or Sustainability, much to the frustration of companies who struggle to prioritize issues and stakeholders who have different views about what is important.

Last year, the United Nations working group on business and human rights chose the U.S. for one of its four country missions, along with Mongolia, Ghana, and Russia. The group met with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida and communities affected by surface mining in West Virginia, among others.

We would do well to follow the lead of the U.N. working group and embrace Eleanor Roosevelt’s wise words: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home… Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”