When I started my third year Human Rights and Business module, I initially chose it as a compliment to my Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) module. Over the course of my degree, I have become increasingly aware of the downfalls of our western capitalist society and the need for CSR, in terms of the ethical damage caused by businesses. However, this awareness was only surface level. It wasn’t until this year that I really started to immerse myself in the depths in which human rights are violated by businesses, and the difficulties from a law perspective of remedying these abuses.
Although I would consider myself as somebody who takes an interest in current affairs, it became increasingly apparent through this module that I am not as aware of human rights abuses as I once thought. I knew that certain big brands would use sweatshops, and people seemed to view extractive industries negatively. Nonetheless, the Human Rights and Business module has shown me how limited my awareness truly was. I generally take a Kantian view of ethics, where I believe that everyone has a sense of duty to do the right thing in a given situation. I have continuously been shocked to learn about the sheer scope of the human rights violations committed by businesses and am amazed at how my view is not the norm. Human rights abuses occur most notably of course, within companies that operate trans-nationally. This difficulty was first bought to my attention through the Talisman case study. (Macklin, A and Simons, P, 2014) The idea that businesses will take advantage of weak states in order to keep business costs down shocks me to my core. There is a sort of detachment between the western world and the developing world, it’s incredibly easy not to have to think about where your clothes, food, or smartphone is sourced from. I touched upon this divide very briefly in my blog post entitled ‘The Global South.’ It’s only when you really start to research for yourself that you discover that there is hardly any area of your western life that is not tainted by a human rights violation of some description.
Learning about human rights abuses committed by businesses has been one shocking aspect of this module, however learning the reasons why businesses can continuously get away with these violations has been the most interesting aspect. Before this year I wasn’t aware of governance gaps, and how a business can operate as separate companies depending on what country they are based in. Many big businesses will use this to their advantage by operating at least part of their organisation within states with no or turbulent legal systems. They do so with the knowledge that they can operate unethically within this state in order to maximise profits, without repercussions. This has caused me to become sceptical of the ethics of any business, which although is sad, now feels entirely necessary. Naively, I once believed that certain companies value their impact on society in a higher regard than pursuing profits. From my research, it seems as though this is a rarity.
One of the main things that has remained in my mind is that from a law perspective, only states can be responsible for human rights abuses, even if it was a business that conducted the harm. This made sense to me at first, but in my very first blog post entitled ‘Modern Day Slavery’ I discovered that even if something is legally binding, states can still fail to enforce them. In this post I considered how section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 has been in force for over two years, but the UK government is still failing to take action against companies that do not meet the standards of this law. (Whitehead, F and Kelly A, 2017) The law itself is vague and doesn’t set out clear guidelines for companies to follow, which can be said for a lot of human rights related law.
I have learnt that the main issue with seeking justice for human rights abuses is that transnational law is incredibly weak. In terms of human rights instruments, many of them are unenforceable legally. The reason for this being that attaining an agreement from every country on what consists of a human rights violation is incredibly difficult. Therefore, majority of human rights instruments are created as ‘norms’ or ‘recommendations’ which are not legally binding. They use suggestive language in their terms such as ‘should’ instead of the firm language found in other legal documents such as ‘must.’ These instruments then become aspirational, rather than compulsory. Causing the ability for states to ignore these good practices.
The only aspect of what I have learnt this year that brings me hope for the future is that the general public are becoming increasingly aware of CSR issues; ‘more than half of consumers agree that people should boycott companies that act unethically.’ (Mintel, 2015) However, if they are anything like myself, they probably think that they are more aware of unethical business practices than they actually are. None the less, consumer awareness is the first step to businesses taking CSR seriously. If a corporation’s profits are at risk of damage due consumer awareness of unethical business practices, this will be a major motivation to reassess their operations.
In terms of how this module has allowed me to mature as a person, I’ve become increasingly aware to not take the propaganda fed to me by corporations at face value. As I have discovered through my blog, businesses will often only give you the side of their operations that they want you to see, rather than be transparent in their operations. As a business student, I’ve also had more of an insight into the world of law, which I enjoy thoroughly and would consider perusing in the future. I’ve also enjoyed the act of keeping a blog, and have improved upon my research and writing skills as a result. The blog has also forced me to keep to deadlines, due to the fact I have been writing new posts weekly.
As a result of taking this module, I have realised how much I want to take on a career that aims to make a difference ethically. The world of business is vital to our capitalist society, and I am glad to have a rounded insight as to how this world operates through my degree. However, the pain and destruction that is caused as a result of business practise is not something I necessarily want to participate in. I am now hoping to peruse a career with ethical implications, hopefully within the human rights sector. This may be for a charity or a non-governmental organisation, or even working within a business to improve CSR within the organisation. In order to progress in this sector, I am aiming to take on a human rights based master’s course within the new few years, in order to continue to grow my knowledge around the subject.
Macklin, A. and Simons, P. 2014, The Governance Gap: Extractive Industries, Human Rights, and the Home State Advantage, Routledge.
Mintel (2015) The Ethical Consumer – UK [online]. Available from: http://academic.mintel.com [Accessed: 12/04/2018]
Whitehead, F. and Kelly, A. (2017) ‘Path to illegal behaviour’: UK accused of failing to press home anti-slavery law ‘, The Guardian, 4 October. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/04/illegal-behaviour-uk-accused-of-failing-to-press-home-anti-slavery-law (Accessed 24 April 2018).