human rights workplace

Human Rights in the Workplace

What constitutes Human Rights in the Workplace

Human rights are often seen as perplexing, complex issues that most organisations find hard to grapple with or think these are simply not applicable to their business. Human rights are in fact, very much a part of the daily workings of an organisation. Common human resource issues, contractual agreements, health and safety of employees, discrimination, fair wages – all form part of human rights.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (or the ‘Guiding Principles’) which is the global standard in this field and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council[1] defines human rights as being inherent to all individuals – some outlined in the Principles include rights to life and security, rights to freedom of thought, expression and religion, freedom of association and of movement, rights to education and work, to family life and privacy, to food and water, freedoms from torture, slavery or forced labour, rights to freedom of movement, rights to fair and decent work conditions and non-discrimination and rights to a fair trial[2]. The Principles are applicable to all states and businesses and set expectations about how to prevent, address and mitigate negative impacts on human rights by business.

In addition to the Guiding Principles, there are other internationally recognized human rights which Singapore specifically adheres to such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations, the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Why are Human Rights becoming more relevant in the workplace and what are the expectations from companies?

It is evident that companies can preserve or adversely affect human rights of their employees and contract workers, their customers, workers in their supply chains, the local communities in which they operate and the final users of their products and services.

The Guiding Principles make clear that all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, and the responsibility applies not only to company’s own operations but also to all their business relationships, including those throughout their value chain. The UN Guiding Principle 11 expects companies to ‘avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved’.

The first Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) launched earlier this month benchmarking the human rights performance of 98 of the world’s biggest businesses from the apparel, agriculture and ICT sectors[3]. This study determines global leaders and laggards and is the result of detailed and wide-ranging multi-stakeholder consultations, across a wide range of stakeholders (companies, governments, civil society organisations, academics, legal experts etc.). The tool benchmarks business performance on how well they are doing at embedding the UN guiding principles on business and human rights across 6 main categories: their Governance and policies, evidence of embedding Respect and Human Rights Due Diligence, provision of Remedies and Grievance mechanisms, performance of companies Human Right practices as well as their response to allegations and the transparency of their disclosure. Some of the leading companies that emerged were global brands like Marks and Spencer, H&M, Nestle, Unilever, Total and Adidas to name a few. Surprising for some were BHP Billilton, Rio Tinto and TOTAL raking high points.

The benchmarking exercise, like the Modern Slavery Act (in the UK) is instigating business to reconsider their existing governance practices within their operations as well as their supply chains, and to think hard about what the rights of their stakeholders are. The published report does acknowledge that developing strong and enhanced human rights practices is not something that can happen overnight for companies. It takes time to change practices and mindsets, develop frameworks and policies and embed them into the organisation.

Melanie Yap, Founding Partner of A Very Good Company (AVGC) Singapore, a boutique agency which brings together teams of experts to create and implement programmes that bring financial and social value contends ‘businesses, especially those with a global outlook are aware that they run a very real risk of reputational damage with investors, customers and future talent if they fail to take action to prevent and remedy human rights violations. We have seen in particular, investors and consumers pay increasing attention to supply chains where labour rights and industrial relations pose a risk not just to the reputation of a business but to the business itself.’

In Singapore, companies are beginning to talk about human rights, very much in line with international expectations. We still have a long way to go but it is apparent that are benefits to businesses of respecting human rights such as improved risk management, greater access to business opportunities, positive recognition including being seen as a socially responsible organisation, leading to better reputation and ultimately improved relationships with stakeholders – all leading to the greater trust and transparency. Increasingly, as investors look to non-financial, social and governance performance aspects of companies, companies cannot shy away from addressing these slightly complex issues.


[1] In 2011