Corporate human rights reporting

Jul 29, 2020

Gemma Donnelly-Cox, Mary-Lee Rhodes, Benn Hogan and Mary Lawlor make the business case for corporate human rights reporting and outline critical issues for businesses to consider.

Businesses can impact human rights in every context in which they operate. These impacts can be positive: delivering employment, infrastructure and furthering development. They can also be negative, bringing risks, including forced and child labour, pollution and corruption.

Since 1 January 2017, all companies in Ireland to which the Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD) applies have been required to disclose information relating to respect for human rights, including human rights risks and due diligence processes. Over the same period, there has been an increased interest among investment managers, most notably in Europe, in the human rights performance of companies. Furthermore, mandatory human rights due diligence is coming down the tracks. On 29 April, the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, announced his intention to bring forward a legislative proposal in 2021 on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence.

It would seem to be in the clear interest of companies to have a human rights policy and to undertake human rights reporting. Richard Karmel, Global Business and Human Rights Partner at Mazars UK, makes this case in saying (in correspondence with the authors): “Reporting on human rights isn’t a compliance area; it is about being authentic and meaningful in disclosing not only the actions that you have taken to address your greatest risk areas (salient risks) but also reporting on how you know this information. Companies shouldn’t view addressing human rights as an internal cost for external benefit; there is huge internal benefit – greater productivity, improved quality of supplies, less staff turnover and absenteeism, and the attraction of new recruits, for example. This is not a cost area, but one of investment and companies are very good at monitoring their return on investment.”

However, when we looked at human rights reporting by Irish companies, we found a significant information gap. Very few of the companies we studied in Ireland include human rights performance in the policy statements or company reports they publish, including those prepared under the NFRD. This may be due in part to the limited guidance within the Directive on how companies should report on human rights, including due diligence.

We consider here some of the factors driving human rights reporting, what is required in such reporting, and what it looks like when companies do it well.

The UN Guiding Principles and the Irish national plan

In December 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). These principles were the first agreed statement by UN member states following 40 years of attempts to clarify the relationship between business and human rights. Embedded in the UNGPs is the three-pillar ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework’, which sets out the duties of states to protect human rights, and the responsibilities of businesses to respect human rights and remedy failures. At a national level, a range of laws and ‘national action plans’ (NAPs) were created by member states seeking to embed these principles in company law and practice.

Ireland’s NAP, published in 2017, recognises the need to, among other things, “encourage” companies to “develop human rights-focused policies and reporting initiatives”, “conduct appropriate human rights due diligence” and to consider a range of matters regarding access to remedy. An implementation group involving a wide range of stakeholders was established by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to progress the NAP and a baseline assessment of the Irish legislative and regulatory framework was produced.

The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark and Irish company performance

In 2019, the Trinity Centre for Social Innovation published Irish Business and Human Rights: Benchmarking Compliance with the UN Guiding Principles. Mark Kennedy, Managing Partner at Mazars Ireland, has described the report as “a first and important assessment of how companies are dealing with what is a vitally important business issue”. We reported on the results of our pilot study in which we applied the benchmarking methodology developed by the UK-based Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB). The CHRB conducts an annual assessment of 200 of the world’s largest publicly traded companies on a set of human rights indicators. The indicators consider:

  • Commitments: what commitments does a company make to respect human rights, engage with stakeholders and remedy shortcomings?
  • Responsibility, resources, and due diligence: what steps does a company take to embed responsibility and resources for day-to-day human rights, and to establish a due diligence process that encompasses:
    • identifying human rights risks;
    • assessing them;
    • taking appropriate action on the assessed risks; and
    • tracking what happens after action by monitoring and evaluating their effectiveness?
  • Grievance mechanisms, remedy and learning: what grievance mechanisms are established for staff and external stakeholders? How are adverse impacts remedied, and how are the lessons learned incorporated?

Our report applied these indicators to analyse human rights policies and reporting in 22 Irish companies that have international operations. Our source materials for the study were the companies’ publicly available information, as listed in Figure 1.

We found that, by and large, the Irish companies in our study are not reporting fully or systematically, and therefore are failing to make their human rights performance visible. No company disclosed a human rights due diligence process, and no company had a publicly reported formal commitment to remedy adverse impacts caused by it to individuals, workers or communities.

Where companies are reporting, what does an ‘exemplar’ look like? Adidas AG was ranked first in the 2019 global CHRB (see Bill Anderson, Vice President, Global Social and Environmental Affairs at Adidas notes (in correspondence with the authors) that excellence requires transparency about human rights failures as well as successes: “John Ruggie, the author of the UNGP, offered a simple but powerful message to business: in order to meet societal expectations, businesses must both know, and show, that they are respecting human rights. Building policies and due diligence systems on human rights is only half the journey. If a company is to be accountable for its actions and decisions, it must strive for transparency. This can start with small steps, the publication of a statement and a commitment to uphold rights and in time, lead to more dedicated reporting measures on issues and remedies. It is always easy to present the good one is doing, but much harder to account for the negative impacts a company’s operations may have on people’s lives.”

Human rights reporting is here to stay

While few companies in our sample of 20 Irish companies reported systematically on human rights, and despite an apparent lack of awareness among them of the UNGP, and a lack of explicit compliance, our view is that awareness of the requirement to report is slowly gaining strength in Ireland. It makes business sense to know how to report and how to address areas that indicate less than ideal human rights performance.

Companies reporting under the NFRD are likely to face a shifting environment in the coming years. The European Commission is currently conducting a review of the NFRD, with a proposal expected in Q4 of this year. As mentioned above, the EU is committed to bringing forward legislation on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence in 2021.

Companies that get the basics right now by implementing policies and due diligence to prevent human rights abuses, instigating appropriate systems to remedy harms caused, and communicating their actions through non-financial reporting mechanisms will be well-placed to respond to this evolving regulatory landscape.

We continue to benchmark Irish companies and in autumn 2020, will report on an expanded sample. We hope that benchmarking in Ireland will contribute to the impetus for improved corporate human rights reporting. Richard Karmel shares this view, noting that benchmarking “has an important role to play in the world of human rights reporting; after all, few companies want to be seen in the bottom quartile. Naturally, human rights benchmarks should stimulate a race to the top and ultimately encourage better treatment by business of those who are most vulnerable in our supply chains.”

Gemma Donnelly-Cox, Mary-Lee Rhodes, Benn Hogan and Mary Lawlor represent the Centre for Social Innovation at Trinity Business School.