The Company’s initiatives on human rights continued to address challenging issues in 2014. As a diversified, global Company with growth in emerging markets, we will inevitably confront human rights issues. Our own Statement of Principles on Human Rights helps frame our response, and we have issued Implementing Procedures to help the businesses operate in a manner that respects human rights. Those responsible for implementing the procedures reside in various businesses, in several functions, and are spread over broad geographies.

At the corporate level, responsibility for human rights strategy rests with the vice president for International Law and Policy, who reports to the General Counsel, with input from other functional officers. The GE Foundation, through its president and the Company’s chief diversity officer, also plays a role in helping fund philanthropic programs focused on human rights.

At each GE business, a human rights champion has been designated by the respective General Counsels of the GE businesses in a structure chaired by the senior counsel of Labor and Employment Law. Each business also has a Compliance Review Board that is responsible for activities such as assuring due diligence is conducted commensurate with the nature of the transaction’s human rights risk, assuring adequate grievance processes exist, determining appropriate responses to known human rights impairments, assuring direct business partners comply with local laws and GE Supplier Expectations, training employees on programs such as “Eyes Always Open” and “Know Your Customer” and “Open Reporting”.

From a regional perspective, CEOs in the 15 regions designated by GE’s Global Growth Operation (GGO) are engaged to help anticipate human rights issues in emerging markets where such rights are under unique pressures. Working through country or regional boards, the CEOs of the GGO regions maintain human rights risk profiles for countries or regions with weak rule-of-law or governance structures, alert senior leadership to local human rights concerns and monitor local developments that may give rise to human rights impairments. Compliance teams at both the regional and corporate levels participate in risk assessment and abatement processes, help with human rights training and education, and investigate and remediate human rights concerns.

In essence, the Implementing Procedures are intended to bring together the collective resources of GE’s global business operations and functional capabilities to operate in a manner that respects human rights. This means we undertake due diligence adequate for the potential risk to human rights, taking into consideration factors such as: the country of operation, the size and nature of any infrastructure footprint, the industrial sector’s association to particular human rights issues, effects on the community and environment, the cultural and social landscape in surrounding communities, security issues in conflict zones, product use and potential misuse, and many other factors as might reasonably raise attendant risks.

Olympics and LGBT

While the Sochi Olympics seem like ancient history, as one of 10 “top sponsors,” GE, the Olympic Committee and other top sponsors found themselves in a troubling environment in the months that led up to the Winter Olympic events. The issue focused on a law passed by the Russian Duma shortly before the Olympics that criminalized public expression to minors of nontraditional sexual relationships. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities and NGOs staged many protests against this Russian law, and many of the top sponsors were pressured to influence the Olympic Committee and/or the Russian government to repeal the offensive law. Despite the seriousness of the issue, it turned out that worrisome issues of terrorist threats overwhelmed the issue of LGBT equality under Russian law and, fortunately, the Olympics concluded with neither a terrorist incident nor a major incident involving application of this new law. Nevertheless, this controversy led to broad discussions about the Olympic movement and situations where laws or practices of the hosting country conflict with international law and whether the Olympic Charter should be more focused on accepted human rights norms as articulated under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Following the Sochi Winter Olympics, in November 2014 the IOC revealed 40 proposals that will make up the Olympic Agenda 2020, a strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement. Recommendations will include:

  • IOC to include nondiscrimination of sexual orientation as a Fundamental Principle of Olympism in the Olympic Charter.
  • Changes to the city bidding process where potential candidate cities need to present how the Games balance their sporting, economic, social and environmental long-term planning needs.
  • Strengthening the independence of the IOC Ethics Commission. The IOC will also create the position of compliance officer to advise IOC members, staff and others.

All 40 of the recommendations, including those referenced above, were adopted by the IOC, and we are encouraged by the IOC’s sensitivity to human rights issues that are associated with host country and venue site selections, preparing venues and the running of the games.

Of course, the Russian law at issue in Sochi is not the only national law that fails to respect the human rights of persons. For example and in just this context, gay sex is illegal in 37 of Africa’s 54 countries. Elsewhere, in Malaysia and Singapore, both retain colonial-era prohibitions on sex between men, though with varying degrees of punishment: fines, imprisonment for up to 20 years and whipping in Malaysia; imprisonment for up to two years in Singapore. So LGBT individuals are unwelcome in major regions of the world.

The Company, on the other hand, has made great strides in respecting the human rights of employees. We received the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Award for the initiatives we have taken to honor diversity and employee rights to sexual orientation and preference. Among the steps we have recently taken are:

  • Elevating the LGBT community to Affinity Group Status
  • Added nondiscrimination regarding gender identity or expression to our Fair Employment Practices Policy
  • Compensating medical expenses for transgender procedures
  • Providing benefits for same-sex marriages in the U.S.

Empowering Women in the Middle East

Broadly speaking, the dilemma for a multinational company (MNC) like GE that operates in the Middle East, North Africa & Turkey (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 MNC’s 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.  In its first year of operation, nearly 500 women have been hired.

We believe that women in Saudi Arabia are a highly educated, energized, and untapped source of talent.  In particular, Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) is one of the jewels in the Kingdom for developing talented women who can work for GE.  We have Saudi women working for us at our GE Manufacturing Technology Center in Dammam and we have many Saudi women working for us in other countries.  Saudi women have a lot to offer GE and other global companies.

Myanmar: Sector-wide Adverse Impact Analysis

GE reentered Myanmar in 2013 and opened an office in Yangon in 2014. We have engaged in a number of sales and lease transactions and have engaged in a variety of philanthropic endeavors through the Ministry of Health. We have future interests in helping to ease the crippling energy shortage suffered by the citizens of Myanmar—victims of energy poverty. We have won sales contracts to ease this energy shortage, and we have additional product sale tenders under consideration. We also see a future for our Oil & Gas business, which supports the extractive industry. This industry has been historically associated with human rights deprivations of various kinds. Anticipating possible future involvement in Myanmar, we funded an Oil & Gas sector-wide Impact Assessment, conducted by the Institute on Human Rights and Business, to help GE and other businesses in the Oil & Gas sector to better understand human rights risks that attend operating in this sector. This report was issued in July of this year and is unusual in that it is not a confidential analysis particularized to planned initiatives by GE. Rather, it is a public document, available to all, that tries to highlight for all in the Oil & Gas sector the human rights issues that attend operations in Myanmar.

Learn more about Myanmar.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking has been characterized by President Obama as a modern form of slavery. This is no doubt so, but the definition of “human trafficking” is not entirely clear. Certainly, it would include child labor and forced labor, both of which are prohibited in GE’s Statement of Principles on Human Rights. It also includes certain practices to which migrant workers are exposed—like excessive recruitment and placement fees—and prostitution or sex-trade practices. While we tend to think of these practices as limited to certain trade sectors or regions that GE does not typically operate in, we must keep our eyes open to the reality that forms of human trafficking exist in every country and in every industry. In January 2015, the U.S. government issued regulations applicable to GE and other defense contractors that will require the adoption of certain procedures to detect, guard against and remedy the scourge of human trafficking in the defense procurement process. The regulation required modification to various aspects of government contracting diligence efforts, reporting protocols, and subcontractor interactions.

The scourge of human trafficking is a global issue extending well beyond the U.S. In recognition of its breadth, pervasiveness and insidious nature, we will be working with the Institute on Human Rights and Business to identify best practices in curbing business practices that can unintentionally lead to human trafficking.

For more on other human rights–related activities, see Conflict Minerals, Rule of Law and Countries of Concern.