In November 2012, a fire in a garment factory near the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka killed about 112 people and injured several hundreds. The factory was owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd., a subsidiary of The Tuba Group, a large Bangladeshi garment exporter whose clients included Wal-Mart, Carrefour, C&A, Kmart, and Li & Fung. The factory opened in May 2010, employed about 1,500 workers, and had sales of $35 million a year from the production of clothing such as T-shirts, polo shirts, and fleece jackets. Although most workers had closed from work when the fire broke out, about 600 were still inside, working overtime. Sadly, most of the workers had died on the first and second floors, because there were not enough exits.
In the aftermath of the fire, questions were raised about accountability. Some people argued that the factory owners and the regulators who later established Bangladesh fire safety standards were responsible. Others said that Western clothing companies and retailers who rely on low-cost clothing manufacturing options in Bangladesh should ensure that their suppliers have safe factories or take their business elsewhere.
Unfortunately, irrespective of which arguments held true, supervisors were arrested, major clients discontinued business with the factory, series of protests and unrests erupted, the factory was indefinitely shut down and finally, the owner was arrested, convicted and charged for causing deaths by negligence.
This case is just one of the many global instances lending credence to the fact that a lack of respect for human rights can have huge negative effects on the sustainability of a business.
Sixty nine (69) years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable and fundamental rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being. Although it covers civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed another document – the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011, to specifically guide states and companies in preventing, addressing and remedying human rights abuses committed in business operations globally. This was in response to the growing concern about the impact of business activities on human rights and the lack of clarity about the human rights responsibilities of companies.
Although there are legal, financial and reputational consequences for companies that fail to respect human rights as set out in the Guiding Principles, Nigerian companies have seemingly violated them as human rights cases remain on the rise.
As Nigeria joins the rest of the world in marking another human rights day, the nudging question is how the principles of the human rights can be upheld for business sustainability in Nigeria.
According to the Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights, states must protect citizens against human rights abuse within their territories, including abuses from business enterprises by taking appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress such abuse through effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication. The irony is that abuses permeate the Nigerian public sector itself. Human Rights Watch reported that on the 20th of November, 1999, civilians were killed in Odi, a village in Bayelsa State by the Nigerian military’ as an off-shoot of an ongoing conflict in the Niger Delta over indigenous rights to oil resources and environmental protections. Similarly in 2010, a little girl was reported hit by a police bullet in Sapele after her father refused to pull over at a check point. A wide-spread human abuse case in 2013 was the Baga invasion by the Military Joint Task Force (JTF), which allegedly led to the death of over 200 civilians.
Human rights are not only being invaded within the police or military. A state government was in 2016 accused of ordering the punishment of civil servants who protested their unpaid salaries whilst in the same year, a blogger was arrested for allegedly criticizing the government.
Recently, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), saddled with the responsibility of protecting human lives and properties, has been accused of engaging in human rights violation in different parts of the country, resulting into a #EndSARS campaign across various online platforms and nationwide protests. These cases confirm the persistence of human rights violations in Nigeria, with at least a case recorded yearly.
Progressively, the fight against abuse of human rights must begin within the public sector and especially within its establishments. Public officials must be (re)sensitized whilst those who invade rights are severely persecuted, irrespective of their status, in order to serve as a deterrent to others. Chapter Four of the 1999 Nigerian constitution exhaustively describes the fundamental human rights of every citizen and how violations should be addressed. It is the sole responsibility of the government, especially the judiciary, to ensure that all rights are protected for the growth of the nation. The stability of the country, growth of its economy and the development of the people and environment are partly hinged on the treatment of citizens and their rights, which should be led by the public sector and transcended to the private sector.
No respect equals risky business
Just as the destruction of the Tazreen Fashions Ltd., arrest and conviction of its principal officials and series of compensations paid to victims were the unfortunate after-effects of human right violations on the business, neglect of employees, customer and community rights pose huge threats to the survival, growth or sustainability of any business.
In Nigeria, poor working conditions, under-remuneration, dismissals, long working hours, discriminatory practices against women, and environmental pollution are some of the most rampant sorts of human rights violation in businesses organisations. Although many of those perpetuated by large companies may not have resulted to direct closure of such businesses, they have occasioned several protests, destruction of facilities and fragmentation of trust.
Moreover, human right abuses in business operations increase social risks, productivity, overhead costs, compensation expenses and subsequently, a decline in return on investment.
These consequences have continued to confirm that the cost of upholding human rights in business operations is very low in comparison to the cost of dealing with the aftermath of its violation.
Ensuring that human rights are upheld not only reduces business risks, it is also instrumental to business and societal growth, as well as a nation’s socio-economic stability. All businesses, no matter the size, should consider infusing an active human right policy in to daily operations whilst ensuring that all the guiding principles on business and human rights and other international human rights principles are obeyed. There should also be active mechanisms for tracking performance. Already some organisations have included respect for human rights in their CSR/sustainability strategies, notably Guinness Nigeria, Zenith Bank Nigeria, FBNQuest.
Standing up for human rights
The need for global citizens to stand up for their fundamental human rights was the thrust of this year’s human rights day (December 10, 2017) whilst the hashtag, standupforhumanrights has been chosen for the celebration of the upcoming 70th anniversary.
Although, Nigeria has adopted major human rights principles, a stark disrespect for these rights continues to spread across the country as a normalcy. However, it can be inferred from the United Nations’ 2017/2018 direction that the need for everyone to stand up for their rights and those of others is the most potent means to ending human rights violation. Yet, the National Human Rights Commission has confirmed that many Nigerians either have limited or no knowledge of their rights.
Although article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment, over 10million Nigerians remain unemployed in Nigeria partly due to dwindling economic conditions, aided by periodic dismissals, nepotism and favouratism resulting from discrimination against gender or ethnic origins – all human rights issues. Moreover, the sustainability of more small and micro enterprises is being threatened by the lack of commitment of employees to jobs/delivery of poor products/services, government prosecutions and distrust from clients/customers, which are all partly effects of human right violations.
It is however the responsibility of citizens to consciously get knowledgeable about their rights whilst companies create avenues to intimate employees and clients/customers of their rights. Furthermore, every Nigerian should stand for the protection of human rights from both the public and private sectors by holding them accountable for upholding these rights.
In summary, upholding human rights for business sustainability can only be attained when the public sector leads by presenting good examples for the private sector; to adopt indicting and providing incentives to defaulting and performing companies respectively. Also, businesses should infuse human rights principles, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms into daily operations while citizens continue to protect their rights by advocacy and holding the government and businesses accountable.
Finally, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”