Business and Human Rights: What is in Store for 2016?

Each year, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) releases a list of what they consider the top issues in the field of business and human rights for that coming year. This year is no exception and the BHRRC has announced that the list for 2016 will be released in the coming weeks. Reflecting on 2015 list, it is worth noting developments related to these ten issues and looking to 2016, conjecturing what the new year brings. For those unfamiliar with the list, here is what the BHRRC identified as the top issues this year.

Top 10 business & human rights issues for 2015

1. Reinforcing Citizen Participation in the Business and Human Rights Agenda, including by Protecting Human Rights Defenders

2. Overcoming Barriers Preventing Access to Effective Remedies for Corporate Related Human Rights Abuses

3. Scaling Up Efforts to Eradicate Forced Labour, Slavery and Trafficking from Services, Manufacturing, and Global Supply Chains

4. Strengthening Trade Union Movements in an Era of Growing Casualisation of Work

5. Protecting the Right to Privacy and Ending Mass Surveillance of Digital Communications

6. Ensuring Corporate Use or Acquisition of Land Does Not Undermine the Rights of Small Farmers and Local Communities

7. Developing Policy and Regulatory Architecture to Tackle Human Rights Abuses Arising from Tax Avoidance and Illicit Financial Flows

8. Combating Sexual Violence in the Workplace

9. Making the Private Sector Role in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) work for Human Rights

10. Strengthening State Approaches to Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including through National Action Plans[1]

In the U.S., the State Department’s lead role in developing a National Action Plan for the U.S. government has raised a host of issues and has drawn comments from advocates. Perhaps the biggest issue of concern to civil society organizations is the fact that the National Action Plan will apply primarily to companies operating outside of the U.S. This is a troubling issue as many domestic human rights problems continue to develop – workplace rights, rights of migrant workers as well as privatized prisons, water services and other functions normally within the province of government being at the forefront of the debate.While this Top 10 list is not predicting the future as much as reflecting of the growing trends in the field, it is interesting to examine some examples of how these issues have developed over the year.

In the cyber realm, right to privacy remains a concern with continuing recognition that some ICT companies play an important role, if not complicity, in government surveillance. The revelation that a European cyber security company, Hacking Team, was providing invasive Internet security services to a number of repressive governments around the world reflects a growing concern about the risks facing companies that cooperate with host governments everywhere, particularly if governments are not being transparent with their data collection policies and how they are handling the obtained information.

Eradication of forced labor remains a hot button topic, with the ongoing labor problems in Qatar related to the construction of the World Cup facilities creating considerable concern. With more than 2400 foreign workers dying on the job, and massive corruption within FIFA, the World Cup sponsor, attention is high on the problems facing those workers as well as others around the world.

With regard to casualization of labor, the current debate surrounding drivers working for the virtual taxi service, Uber, keeps this issue in the minds of many people. In addition, the recognition of the important role that unions play in securing adequate pay and acceptable working conditions for people has become acute when people witness titans of industry seeing annual massive pay raises while workers’ wages remain stagnant.

So what is in store for 2016?

While we cannot predict what the people at the BHRRC will identify for 2016, based on what we have observed this year, a couple of predictions are in order.

First, missing from the list for 2015 is the increasing move toward the development of a business and human rights treaty. Viewed by some as a misguided effort prompted by Ecuador and several other states not normally associated with respecting human rights, the issue continues to gain traction in the business and human community and promises to become one of the top issues in 2016.

Second, with the anticipated release of the U.S. draft National Action Plan in 2016, there will likely be heated debate not only from the advocacy community but from business as well, with both sides taking predictable positions on the scope, implementation, and effectiveness of the Plan.

Third, with the influx of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries into Europe, the risk of labor exploitation will increase along with the attention being paid to the issue. Combined with the simmering nationalism expressed by a handful of companies in Europe with similar noises coming from politicians both in the E.U. and the U.S. about the myriad threats to society posed by immigrants, the spill over effects into mainstream business activities remains a growing concern.

Finally, as sustainable energy development remains a major goal in the global economy, environmentally responsible energy production and supply will likely come up against the realities of working people exploited in manufacturing of solar energy equipment, land use for the installation of massive solar arrays, and the displacement of local populations affected by large-scale wind and solar farms.

What the issues revealed by the BHRRC list will be is not yet known. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of human rights issues involving business going forward.




[1] Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues for 2015, Dec. 19, 2014, http://business-humanrights.org/en/institute-for-human-rights-and-business-publishes-top-10-business-human-rights-issues-for-2015#c108055.