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."
Take Royal Dutch/Shell. Now considered a human rights leader in the oil business, the company endured withering criticism in the mid-1990s for alleged abuses in Nigeria.
Activists accused Shell of environmental devastation and complicity with government forces in various attacks on an indigenous group known as the Ogoni. After a 1993 clash between Ogonis and another tribe, in which some 35 people were killed, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) accused Shell of colluding with Nigeria's military in the attack by ferrying in soldiers by helicopter.
Even more alarming, the company in 1995 was accused of bribing witnesses in a murder trial that led to the execution of a MOSOP leader and eight other Ogonis. Shell has since denied all such allegations and says it wrote to Nigeria's head of state urging clemency. But the experience served as a wake-up call to management. In 1997, Shell added the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to its business principles. It now consults with human rights groups, distributes a human rights guide to its managers, and trains them to deal with such challenges.
Some activists believe the scrutiny has transformed a few corporations.
"Outside pressure may have gotten them to the table; outside pressure may have kept them at the table," says Mr. Harvey of the International Labor Rights Fund. "But being there has changed the way they think about these issues."
Most activists acknowledge that the worst abuses are being eliminated. In some apparel factories, for example, workers didn't have clean drinking water, had severe restrictions placed on bathroom breaks, and even in some cases had their mouths taped shut during the day.
Now companies need to address the next layer of issues, Ms. Benjamin says, which involve decent pay.
"It's not necessarily anymore how the factory looks, because we have so many examples now of clean, well-lighted modern factories," she says. It's: "How is the family back home living? ... Do [workers] have enough money to eat three decent meals a day? Can they afford to get married and have kids?"
And though some corporations, such as Levi Strauss and the Gap, have studied the issue, no company in the apparel industry has committed to paying a living wage, she adds.
One reason is that the concept isn't easy to pin down. Does a living wage imply enough to lift a single worker out of poverty - or a worker and six dependents? How many hours of work should be allowed to earn that living wage, especially when some employees plead for more hours so they can earn more?
It's really hard to tell, the US Labor Department concluded after looking at wage and labor conditions in major footwear-and-apparel-exporting countries around the world. "Whether this wage is a 'living wage' is likely to lie in the eye of the beholder," the report said.
For example, the Indonesian government concluded that a worker only had to make more than $16.32 a month in 1996 to escape poverty. But that's half the lowest international poverty rate ($1 per day) used by the United Nations. Using that measure, nearly 6 in 10 Indonesians lived in poverty, according to the UN Development Program. The Asian crisis has since pushed two-thirds of the population into poverty, the agency estimates.
Nor are abuses limited to the developing world. Earlier this year, a Los Angeles garment manufacturer agreed to pay $179,000 in back wages for failing to meet minimum-wage standards. Last week, Liz Claiborne, Calvin Klein, and six other major retailers paid $5.7 million to settle a suit by garment workers who alleged sweatshop conditions in the Northern Marianas, a US commonwealth.
The mere fact that companies are beginning to address such issues signals their increasing importance on the world stage. "One of the weaknesses in the human rights movement is that it focuses on governments as the actors," says Danny Kennedy, director of Project Underground, a human rights organization based in Berkeley, Calif. In reality, "governments may be secondary forces.... I have no doubt companies are at least on par with governments as actors for good or bad."
If companies have increasing power vis--vis governments, they tend to be low-key about how they exercise it. "Some things you don't see in public doesn't mean they're not happening," says Cohen of Reebok.
Often, especially in relatively violent areas, companies claim they're caught in the middle between corrupt governments and guerrillas. For example, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc. runs one of the world's largest copper and gold mines in a remote part of Indonesia. In the mid-1990s, various clashes between government troops and an independence movement created strong suspicions among villagers and human rights observers that the company colluded with the government.
"We see a company that chose to side with a dictatorship to get its mining business," says Mr. Kennedy. "They could have been a force for good.... Instead they chose to stand on them [villagers] with the force of a boot."
The company denies the charges and points out that no investigation has ever found evidence of wrongdoing. Two cases brought to US courts were thrown out. But distrust lingers. Last November, the New Orleans-based company hired Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, a human rights activist who headed the United Nations' war-crimes tribunal in the former Yugoslavia, to advise on the issue. "Those [incidents] have been investigated, but there isn't really any closure to it yet," she says in an interview. "Let's end it. And whatever shows up, let it show up."
At the moment, Freeport is negotiating with the RFK Memorial Center, a human rights group, to conduct an independent investigation of the incidents. But talks have bogged down. And the Indonesian government hasn't signed on.
"It's clear that in the private sector, human rights are an issue," says Arvind Ganesan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group based in New York. "In those companies where there's a problem, it's a growing concept. [But] with the exception of labor issues, these issues become very unique to the industry in which they're operating."
And companies aren't always consistent. Most Western companies have pulled out of Burma because the regime sanctions forced labor. But companies continue to operate in China (despite human rights violations in Tibet), and Colombia (where military and guerrilla clashes have put companies such as BP Amoco under increasing scrutiny).
Even in more stable areas, different concepts of rights, laws, and standards of living will not make life easy for companies wanting to move onto the world stage.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society