Are human rights relevant to Malaysian business?

by Esther Teh

Globally, human rights have been recognised as a critical part of responsible business. With the launch of the United Nation’s (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011, it was clearly reiterated that companies have a responsibility to avoid human rights abuses resulting from their own activities or in their supply chains. The UN Global Compact’s Principle 1 & 2 on human rights also call on business to develop an awareness of human rights and to use their sphere of influence to uphold these universal values.

In Malaysia, human rights impacts of business have not been widely discussed or addressed. However, in the past year the role of business in upholding, respecting and promoting human rights have been highlighted. In June, Malaysia’s position was downgraded from the Tier 2 ‘Watch list’ to Tier 3 in the United States’ State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report due to issues such as forced labour in the Malaysian electronics and garment industrychild labour in the palm oil industryexploitation of migrant workers at vegetable farms in Cameron Highlandstreatment of local timber workers and in the mining industry in Sarawak.

In addition to the human tragedy of these stories, which cannot be underestimated, there is also tremendous damage involved for Malaysia’s reputation and international companies’ loss of faith in Malaysian businesses in their supply chain that can have tremendous commercial impacts.

This year’s international Human Rights Day, celebrated last week promotes the theme ‘Human Rights 365’. It is a timely reminder for companies to note that human rights is an everyday issue, and not just something to look at once a year. Businesses have an enormous potential to create opportunities and improve life chances for many whether in terms of equality, security or even personal, economic, social and cultural freedoms.

Companies can take these practical steps to address human rights issues:

Map potential issues and manage the risk. More and more businesses are coming to realise their legal, moral and economic need to address human rights issues within their own activities and their business relationships. As part of a company’s responsibility to respect human rights, companies are expected not only to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts, but also to address human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products, or services by their business relationships, even if the company has not contributed to those impacts.

Develop human rights policy and communicate publicly. UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rightsstate the following in guiding principle 16: “As the basis for embedding their responsibility to respect human rights, business enterprises should express their commitment to meet this responsibility through a statement of policy”. Many companies have communicated publicly their company policy statement on human rights. This may not necessarily be enough to ward of human rights issues but at least being proactive will prepare companies to effectively deal with crises, when they happen. Many tools and resources are available to help guide companies.

Keep your ear to the ground and get on the ground. Companies need to understand and assess the actual and potential impact on human rights through their business activities by engaging internal and external stakeholders. Companies need to know what is going on in their business operation and supply chain not just through asking the suppliers the right questions and auditing but seeing the real situation.

The understanding and integration of human rights in business practice will strengthen the positive role that business can play towards a sustainable and inclusive global economy in which human rights are fully respected.

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