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A file photo of Unilever headquarters in Rotterdam. Unilever has in this past decade been hammered for alleged human rights violations. Photo: AFP
A file photo of Unilever headquarters in Rotterdam. Unilever has in this past decade been hammered for alleged human rights violations. Photo: AFP

Unilever takes a step forward

It's no small matter when a massive, globe-girdling, ubiquitous corporation sticks its neck out with a human rights document

The big news this past week in the world of business and human rights was the publication by Unilever Plc. of a human rights report. Released on 30 June, Enhancing Livelihoods, Advancing Human Rights is welcome. It is based on the reporting framework suggested by the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

It’s no small matter when a massive, globe-girdling, ubiquitous corporation sticks its neck out with such a document. Even as it undertakes a public relations overdrive to push it, Unilever must realize there is now a self-inflicted yardstick to hold it accountable.

The report—which John Morrison, executive director of London-based Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), terms “one of those landmarks" in this fraught area—has a remarkable admission by Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive officer, in the opening pages. “Today, the risk of systemic human rights abuses exists across our value chain and the value chains of other global businesses," Polman admits. “This is a reality we must confront and work together to resolve."

Polman urges: “Safe working conditions, freedom of association, fair wages, protection from forced labour, and freedom from harassment and discrimination: these must become universal operating conditions." That pretty much sums up the key sections and approaches in the report. He adds: “Today, they are not", and also, that Unilever is “cognisant of the barriers".

Undeniably so. Among other things, Unilever has in this past decade been hammered for alleged human rights violations such as land grab, conniving with police to evict villagers and destroy villages, and using forced labour, particularly in the supply chain of palm oil—a major Unilever input—from Asia. Environment and human rights watchdogs have accused it of “greenwash": glibly distancing itself from the ills of its suppliers.

That places Unilever’s human rights report (available on unilever.com) in what I would term a “Primark horizon". The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka on 24 April 2013 led to the deaths of over 1,100 workers, besides numerous injuries and devastated lives. As globally-known businesses and brands like C&A, KIK, Walmart, Mango and Gap scurried for deniability and distance in one of the worst recent examples of corporate social irresponsibility, Primark stepped up. Within days, it unequivocally offered compensation for those who worked for its supplier at Rana Plaza, including “long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to the families of the deceased". It also widened the scope of corporate responsibility with this broadside: “Primark notes the fact that its supplier shared the building with those of other retailers. We are fully aware of our responsibility. We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance." This stand, urged and leveraged by watchdogs, helped to coalesce a fund for compensation, and led to changes in law and workers’ rights for the sector in Bangladesh, besides upgrading building and fire safety.

Similarly, Unilever’s report stands out, especially as corporate colleagues that receive similar raw material inputs from several similar geographies—Procter and Gamble Co., Kraft Foods, Kellogg Co., Cargill Inc. and Nestlé SA—remain far lower down the chain of perception and action.

But as significant as it is, the report is still largely one of intent, along with a couple of highlighted, expectedly bland case study successes. IHRB’s Morrison urges Unilever (in an article on ihrb.org) to “Move the report beyond narrative by setting concrete indicators of human rights performance that can be benchmarked and ranked by stakeholders, in particular investors." He also urges a deep dive into the “nature of the social contract between
rights-holders and a company such as Unilever".

This is urgent human rights business, and the reason is only too evident everywhere. The week’s update by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre reports disturbing news. As villagers in an Indonesian forest claim customary land rights in the middle of BHP Billiton’s IndoMet coal mine, the company responds with a bland, unconvincing qualifier redolent of what happens frequently in India. From Uganda comes news of the danger of land conflict in an oil-rich area. Qatar has postponed a vote to reform an “abusive" system of worker sponsorship.

And in India…well, to end the column on a relatively lighter note, I wish Unilever’s Indian subsidiary would do something about its grotesque product: the Fair and Lovely fairness cream range. By its own admission, Unilever champions “ethics and integrity" and wishes to reduce “discrimination". To be fair, let’s see it.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses
on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business,
runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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