Breaking the Chain of Human Rights Abuse

Some corporations rely on suppliers with clear human rights violations. The power to stop it rests in the hands of us, the consumers.

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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.”

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Galit A. Sarfaty is Canada Research Chair in Global Economic Governance and Assistant Professor in the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. She holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, a Ph.D. and M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, and an A.B. summa cum laude from Harvard University. She previously served as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Sarfaty’s research bridges public and private international law, and has focused on the convergence of economic globalization with human rights. Her anthropological background has given her unique insights into the ways in which international law operates in practice, including the decision-making process within international institutions, the diffusion of international legal norms to the domestic and local levels, and the regulation of transnational economic activity. Her most recent research focuses on corporate accountability, including the regulation of global supply chains and human rights.

Professor Sarfaty’s research has focused on such major international economic organizations as the World Bank, which was the subject of her book entitled Values in Translation: Human Rights and the Culture of the World Bank (Stanford University Press, 2012). She has also published in leading journals including the American Journal of International Law, Harvard International Law Journal, and Virginia Journal of International Law.