You may have read about scandals in which large, multinational corporations rely on suppliers that have very clear human rights violations. H&M was recently under fire for exploiting their workers in India and Cambodia. Beyoncé’s new clothing collaboration with Topshop, Ivy Park, is manufactured by workers in Sri Lanka, many of whom can’t survive on their basic wage. Yet these companies continue to exist, operate, and even thrive – the Topshop website crashed when Ivy Park was launched.
Many of these issues are caused by the speed of economic globalization and the lack of appropriate legislation behind it.
Galit Sarfaty, Assistant Professor & Canada Research Chair in Global Economic Governance at the University of British Columbia, studies the human rights impacts of economic globalization and how international law can operate in practice to prevent violations from occurring.
Human rights violations in large organizations can manifest in various ways. For example, the World Bank, an institution aimed at ridding the world of poverty, does not have a human rights policy in place.
Without a policy, “the Bank can’t provide redress to victims of potential human rights violations [or] make sure their projects won’t affect local peoples negatively,” explains Sarfaty.
Sarfaty has conducted interviews within the organization to pinpoint the bureaucratic obstacles that have impeded the World Bank’s adoption of a human rights policy.
Another impact of globalization is the increasing complexity of company supply chains. Large electronics companies can have up to 50 tiers of suppliers in their supply chain.
“These suppliers are often in countries with weak governance, with poor working conditions,” says Sarfaty. And sometimes, those at the top may not even be aware that these suppliers exist.
Professor Sarfaty is currently researching the potential of domestic legislation, such as that passed recently in the US and UK (and maybe soon coming to Canada), to mandate supply chain disclosure. Consumers can then make well-informed choices on which companies they will support.
However, one issue that Sarfaty has encountered, is the complexity of the information in these public disclosures. Consumers cannot make informed choices if they don’t understand in the first place. Part of Sarfaty’s research is finding the most effective format for the results of these corporate audits, such that the information is easily understandable for consumers.
“The ultimate goal is to change corporate behaviour on human rights practises and the most effective way of doing so, in my opinion, is by leveraging the power of consumers.”