2016: No more business as usual

Annabel Short, Deputy Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

One of the many factors in the election of Donald Trump as US President was a rejection of the status quo. In response, we need to re-think business, with human rights at the forefront.

15 November, 2016

In September, US President Obama called in an address to the UN General Assembly for a different path from “soulless capitalism that benefits only the few".

There are many layers to Donald Trump’s Presidential victory, but on one level it represents the excesses of “soulless capitalism” coming home to roost in the White House.

Voters were fueled by a surge of mistrust in the status quo, voting against politics as usual, but also business as usual.  Some of them felt that the benefits of globalization have flowed only to the privileged while they have been left behind.  This sentiment is then easily manipulated by forces of the far right to frame a dangerous anti-immigration, anti-minority narrative, a dynamic that was also at play in the UK’s Brexit vote.

Through a perverse logic (and thanks to the structure of the electoral college) this has led to the election of a billionaire businessman whose own business practices – including non-payment and disclosure of taxes, exploitation of workers, and boom-bust investments that have harmed local communities – epitomize that soulless capitalism Obama was referring to.  Or, as businessman and former mayor Michael Bloomberg put it during the Democratic party convention, “God help us” if a President Trump runs the country like he has his business. 

During the election cycle, I wondered if post-election business would take the high road or the low road.  The path ahead will be challenging, as we are likely to face major roll-back of regulations that guard against corporate abuses of the environment and workers rights.  Now, more than ever, respect for human rights must lie at the heart of how business is done.  

For our business and human rights movement this means two things.

Start with the rights holders

It may seem like stating the obvious, but rights start with people.   As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, universal human rights start in “the small places, close to home...[u]nless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” They start with workers and communities impacted by companies’ operations, whether those people are in the rustbelt of the USA, the rainforests of Ecuador, the factories of the Philippines. 

The movement needs to build on existing efforts to strengthen workers and communities’ voices and leverage over business.  Encouraging initiatives are already underway.  In the US, witness the successes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that has pressured big brands to ensure decent pay for tomato pickers in Florida, the Workers Defense Project in Texas that is securing commitments from construction companies to treat their workers well, and the nationwide “Fight for 15” campaign in securing increases in the minimum wage.  On our website we recently launched a "Community Action Platform" to share innovative approaches from all regions.

From the business side, companies need to accompany their human rights policies with serious implementation throughout their operations, including consultation with workers, local communities and their representatives, and access to remedy for abuses.  Examples and guidance are on our Business Action Platform.  

Workers must be free to organize, and human rights defenders able to speak out without fear of intimidation.  Companies can follow the lead of examples like S Group, the Finnish retailer that testified in Thai courts on behalf of human rights defender Andy Hall, after he exposed abuses of migrant workers in supply factories.

Re-think business models

While bottom-up approaches to securing rights will be critical, so will top-down rethinking of how business is done.  Many of Donald Trump's supporters were drawn to the idea that he is a successful businessman who "gets things done."  This demonstrates an underlying faith in the potential of commerce to improve people's lives.  The question is, to quote President Obama's address again, how to "make the global economy work better for all people and not just for those at the top."

The current system that prioritizes short-term returns for shareholders inhibits companies from fully respecting human rights throughout their operations.  Even leading major multinationals who have made serious human rights commitments recognize this tension – for example in the limits of their ability to ensure that workers through their supply chains are paid a living wage while also making products at a competitive cheap price.

An Oxfam study of Unilever's supply chain in Vietnam for example concluded that "Unilever’s own analysis shows that the best results come from factories with good conditions and empowered workers; however, its business model does not fully reflect this. Based on this report, competitive advantage is still, in practice, pursued through downward pressure on labour costs, which pushes costs and risks onto workers."

Therefore to make change “in small places, close to home”, we also need to change business models that put rights at risk and take a hard look at the ways in which business influences government policy. 

We can encourage movements like B-Corps that enable companies to put social benefit on a level with profit-making, and support initiatives exploring connections between business models and human rights.  For the media industry, we need to work to find models that enable media companies to be successful while conducting in-depth investigative journalism, and urge social media companies to recognize that as their reach and influence increases, so does their responsibility to ensure they are not used as platforms that deepen polarization.

2016 has witnessed an escalation of tension many years in the making.  It is propelling nationalist, populist and racist agendas to the foreground in many parts of the world.  Our movement to secure human rights in the global economy has become more urgent than ever.

Read more:

Perspectives from civil society, business and others on the implications of the US election for business & human rights

Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtags #bizhumanrights #TrumpPresidency

Sign up for free Weekly Updates on business & human rights