Showing Workers a Way Up ; Companies Operating Abroad Pay Closer Attention to Human Rights

By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Showing Workers a Way Up ; Companies Operating Abroad Pay Closer Attention to Human Rights


Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Just as the environment climbed to the top of corporate agendas during the 1990s, human rights looks likely to gain more attention this decade.

Already, incidents in California, Sudan, China, and Nigeria have forced a small cadre of companies to take a close look at the issue. More corporations are likely to follow.

But the concept of rights, especially human ones, remains fuzzy.

Finding solutions to all but the most basic problems will prove more challenging than cleaning up a polluted river or capping emissions into the atmosphere.

The move of socially responsible companies into this arena will test the limits of corporate power and, perhaps, redefine what "good business" really means.

It also marks the rise of business power on the world political scene.

"There is a fundamental shift taking place," says Aron Cramer, a vice president at Business for Social Responsibility, based in San Francisco. "Human rights principles were really written with governments in mind. [But] it's clear that more and more, the [public] is looking at what the private sector is doing on human rights."

The scrutiny is likely to intensify. Already, Royal Dutch/Shell calculates that in 90 of the more than 140 countries in which it operates, human rights groups have accused the authorities of human- rights violations. And thanks to growing corporate activism on environmental issues, it's much more difficult for companies to take a hands-off approach on other issues, activists claim.

"There's a much stronger recognition in the general public that corporations have a responsibility that goes far beyond the bottom line," says Pharis Harvey, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund in Washington. "The movement on human rights, worker rights, will build on that."

Already, some companies are emerging as leaders. "I think it's the right way to do business. It's as simple as that," says Sharon Cohen, vice president of public affairs for Reebok International Ltd., based in Stoughton, Mass.

For more than a decade, the athletic-shoe company has gotten increasingly involved in human rights issues. In 1988, it spent $10 million to underwrite Amnesty International's concert tour. Since then, it has funded an annual Reebok Human Rights Award and partnered with musician Peter Gabriel and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights to found a program that equips activists with hand- held video cameras to document human rights abuses. In the early 1990s, the company wrote one of the first human rights codes of ethics (see below, middle).

"It continues to mean incredible changes," Ms. Cohen says. For example, when the company began using independent monitors to examine its operations, they found abuses that the company's onsite staff seemed unaware of.

For example, leather-stamping machines that for safety reasons required both hands to operate had been rigged so workers could operate them with one hand and speed production. Reebok replaced the machines with safer models, but six months later, monitors found a new machine had been tampered with.

"We get wake-up calls and things called to our attention all the time," Cohen says.

Last October, the company made public the findings of an independent monitoring team that examined two of its major footwear factories in Indonesia. Although mostly laudatory, the report did criticize communication between workers and management. The company also published the report in the language of its local workers so they could read it.

Most companies aren't nearly as pro-active, activists say. "They're doing this kicking and screaming, all the while saying: 'We're great upholders of human rights,' " adds Medea Benjamin, founding director of Global Exchange, a human rights group based in San Francisco. "It's been the tenacity of a very strong grassroots movement that has forced companies - whether it's Nike, or Mitsubishi, or Chevron - to take these issues seriously. …

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