In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the Guiding Principles on Human Rights, developed under the direction of John Ruggie, then the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles are built on three pillars: states’ duty to protect human rights, business entities’ responsibility to respect human rights, and the obligation of both to provide remedies for deprivations of human rights. Through our membership in the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI), GE was fortunate to contribute to the six-year process that culminated in these Guiding Principles. Our own Statement of Principles on Human Rights has been drafted to reflect GE’s responsibility to respect human rights in our global operations.

The UN Guiding Principles serve as 1) a consensus standard for the formulation of international norms and 2) as a template for nations in enacting legislation on human rights as an integral element of corporate social responsibility (CSR). In the former context, new OECD guidelines have been issued on business and human rights that closely align with the Guiding Principles. In time, we can expect to see claims of human rights deprivations brought through OECD National Contact Points. In the latter context, the European Commission is endeavoring to draft CSR legislation for its members.

Respecting Human Rights in Challenging Environments

At GE, we believe that respect for human rights is both a responsibility and a sound business strategy, especially because many of the products we produce—clean water, energy, healthcare technology—are, at a minimum, human rights enablers. GE’s growth plans have taken us into emerging markets, where human rights are often under pressure. To help understand and mitigate these risks, GE is a member of an organization known as the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI). GBI is an organization made up of 18 multinational companies, including Coca Cola, Total, ABB, Shell, Flextonics, Novo Nordisk and HP. GBI’s purpose is to bring the discussion of businesses’ role in respecting human rights to “emerging market” countries and other regions where human rights are under pressure. Recent GBI gatherings have taken place in Brazil, Egypt and Kenya, and, most recently, in China.

In China

GBI leadership spent over a year planning its January 2013 meeting in Beijing. There was substantial concern about discussing human rights with Chinese businesses and representatives of civil society.  While there have been similar conferences in China on corporate social responsibility, this is the first that focused primarily on human rights. This focus was prompted by the fact that the UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011—requiring all business entities, including Chinese businesses, to respect human rights in their commercial operations.

GBI was able to attract several key Chinese co-sponsors for the conference. In addition to the UN Global Compact local network (China Enterprise Confederation, essentially the Chinese Chamber of Commerce), a Chinese shipping giant (Cosco) and Tsinghua University agreed to sponsor the event. Also attending the Conference were representatives from China Development Bank, China Mobile Communications Corporation, Sinosteel and other smaller Chinese companies. The representative from Cosco showed particular leadership and spoke at the opening gathering of nearly 200 attendees. Following the conference, GBI member companies were unanimously of the view that the Chinese companies were more comfortable talking about business and human rights than we individually or collectively had expected. Insofar as GE has more than 20 joint venture partners in China, this is good news.

As an outgrowth of this meeting, GE participated in a best-practices-sharing forum with Chinese and other companies related to human rights. We highlighted a program we developed to encourage our Chinese employees to identify themselves as carriers of the viral liver disease Hepatitis B (HBV). Up to 10% of the Chinese population is afflicted with this disease, which may not be fatal but clearly results in long-term health problems. Historically, HBV carriers have been discriminated against in China, but the law is now clear that such discrimination is illegal. Nevertheless, many carriers fear discrimination and retaliation if they reveal their affliction, so treatment is often not sought. GE’s program of education, nondiscrimination and treatment could be adopted by any Chinese employer, with benefits to both the employer and the employees. The program touches upon several basic human rights: nondiscrimination, the right to work, the right to health and the right to privacy. By sharing such best practices, GE hopes to enhance respect for human rights in a manner that makes a difference for employers and workers in China.

In the UAE

GBI took the topic of business and human rights to the UAE, where it likewise received a similar welcoming response. Although two to three years ago the UAE government was unwilling to host such a meeting—even for the likes of John Ruggie, then the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, times have changed. Not only did GBI sponsor an event with the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abu Dhabi, but the World Economic Forum followed up with a workshop on the topic of business and human rights.

While the GBI discussions covered many topics, there was particular focus on two issues that multinational companies like GE must take seriously if we are to fulfill our responsibility to respect human rights under the three-pillar framework established by John Ruggie: Migrant workers and gender equality.

First, the issue of gender equality. Broadly speaking, the dilemma for a multinational company like GE that operates in the MENAT regions is adherence to The Spirit & The Letter requirements of gender equality where cultural norms accept gender inequality, especially in a business context. Of course, as within any large region, practices and laws differ with respect to how much inequality is accepted and there are clear differences, for instance, between Saudi Arabia, where GE now employs approximately 1,400 employees, and the UAE, where we employ around 1,100 employees. Nevertheless, of a total GE MENAT employee population of over 5,000, only 15% are female. This is especially notable when one considers the fact that females in this region are highly educated, with women accounting for somewhere between 65% and 75% of the university graduates. Clearly, these statistics reveal that there is a tremendous talent loss to GE and other MNCs trying to grow in this region. How do we unleash the pent-up female talent that resides in the Gulf states?

GE has been working to empower women in the region through its Women’s Network and other initiatives. Offering mentoring programs, placing women in important and visible leadership roles, allowing for flexible working hours, partnering with universities and establishing intern programs, etc., are all effective ways for women to gain greater representation within the GE workforce. Of particular note is a recent partnership formed among GE, Aramco and TATA to create a business-process outsourcing (BPO) entity that will employ over 3,000 women to staff positions at the partners’ respective Saudi operations. It is a sign of the times and of the acceptance of the UN Guiding Principles that the Saudi government—after all, Aramco is a government-owned enterprise—would establish an organization whose sole focus is to place women in business and professional capacities.

The MENAT GBI meeting also included a session on migration. This topic is highly relevant to the MENAT region, as in several UAE states, the proportion of migrant workers within the general population is above 80%. Many of these migrant workers are in low-paid service, construction and domestic positions, where workers tend to come from such countries as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nepal and Bangladesh. It is in these positions that the predominant problems lie. However, in middle- and upper-management ranks, expat professionals are another form of migrant worker, albeit a somewhat privileged form.

Throughout history, and throughout the world, migrant workers have suffered grave abuse and degradation. Even in the U.S., the conditions under which migrant workers live and toil are sometimes shameful. In MENAT, businesses that are dependent on migrant workers must shoulder the responsibility to respect their human rights. While GE does not usually employ migrant workers directly (except for the expats noted above), many of our direct business partners do. We need to understand our direct links with suppliers and business partners that rely on migrant workers and undertake due diligence to assure that the migrant workers retained by them are treated with respect. While there are a number of human rights that surround employment—like providing a living wage, prohibiting forced labor and discrimination, and allowing freedom of association—there is a set of 10 principles known as the Dhaka Principles that establishes good practices in the area of contracting migrant workers.

The principles are as follow:

  1. No fees are charged to migrant workers.
  2. All migrant workers’ contracts are clear and transparent.
  3. Policies and procedures are inclusive.
  4. No migrant workers’ passports are retained.
  5. Wages are paid regularly, directly, on time.
  6. The right to worker representation is respected.
  7. Working conditions are safe and decent.
  8. Living conditions are safe and decent.
  9. Access to remedy is provided.
  10. Freedom to change employment is respected, safe return guaranteed.

GE has recently revised its Supplier Expectations to inquire about certain potential abuses related to migrant workers, such as assuring that passports are retained by or readily accessible to workers.

The topics and discourse at the GBI meeting in Abu Dhabi again demonstrated that the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are no mere flash in the pan. They are here to stay, and they are applicable to every business entity in the world, no matter its size, its region, or its line of business. MENAT, like other regions in the world, presents unique challenges and opportunities to GE as we grow our presence and seek to operate in a way that respects human rights wherever we transact business.