Why do we know so little about corporate human rights abuses?

The biggest obstacle to preventing human rights violations by companies is that we do not know where they are happening or what is working to prevent them.
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They called it "the plane that became a convertible." In 1988, on a routine flight from Hilo to Honolulu, Aloha Airlines flight 243 depressurized mid-flight, ripping the top off the plane. A flight attendant, the only one who wasn't strapped in, was sucked out of the plane with it.

The accident was a wake-up call for the aviation industry. For years, deregulation had attracted more companies to the sector, increasing pressure on airlines to extend the lifespan of their fleets and skip maintenance to keep them in the air.

After the accident, airlines and regulators decided to solve the safety problem head-on. The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority required every airline to report its maintenance, testing and accident data, and set statutory limits for how many times each piece of equipment could be used before it had to be retired.

The airlines took the mission of reducing accidents just as seriously as the regulators. They installed sensors in each plane to record flight conditions, equipment status and pilot reactions. They coordinated their inspection protocols to emphasize genuine quality rather than rote box-ticking. Fail-safes ensured that any equipment malfunction was isolated and offset before it escalated to disaster.

Little by little, all of these systems--identifying risks, reporting them, collaborating within the industry and with regulators--added up to huge improvements in safety. Today, flying across the country is safer than the drive to the airport.

I'm the chair of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, a panel of experts dedicated to addressing corporate human rights impacts. My field had its Aloha Airlines moment in 2013, when an eight-story factory called Rana Plaza collapsed in the suburbs of Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,000 garment workers inside.

The incident made us realize, just like the airline industry in the 1980s, that the world was changing faster than our ability to keep up with it. Globalization has pushed companies farther and farther from their home states, weakening their ability to safeguard, and in some cases even to know, the conditions in which their products are made. Host governments, domestic NGOs and international institutions don't have the capacity to identify all the ways these companies are impacting human rights, much less the power to prevent them.

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a set of guidelines for companies and governments to determine who's responsible for addressing human rights when they're affected by businesses. Since then, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, along with hundreds of companies, governments, civil society organizations and international institutions, have been working to implement these standards.

The overwhelming conclusion to emerge from these efforts over the last four years is simple: The biggest obstacle to preventing human rights violations by companies is that we do not know where they are happening or what is working to prevent them. Nearly three years after the Rana Plaza collapse, we have no systematic information on whether factory conditions in Bangladesh, or anywhere else, have gotten better. High-profile multinational corporations are increasingly committing to human rights , but we don't know whether these commitments are being carried out, nor whether they're trickling down to lesser-known companies.

So why is it so hard to find out where corporate human rights abuses are happening and prevent them? There's three major obstacles:

1. We Don't Know Where the Worst Violations are Happening
As noted on Measuring Business and Human Rights, a blog devoted to this issue, only 15 percent of malaria deaths and 16 percent of all births around the world are accurately recorded. "Poor Numbers," Morten Jerven's 2013 investigation into African statistical agencies, reports that even "objective" statistics from the developing world, things like GDP statistics and population figures, are often projected from just a few data points, sometimes from neighboring countries or decades in the past.

For people trying to prevent human rights violations by companies, these information gaps mean we are doing our work in the dark. We lack systematic, up-to-date information on which countries have the highest rates of child labour, which companies are buying up the biggest pieces of farmland, which government agencies are most likely to ask for bribes. Not only that, but we lack even basic data on where the greatest risks of these violations are. Without hard numbers on private-sector investment and development, we're powerless to ensure that the former contributes to the latter.

These gaps in data are understandable. Many human rights violations by businesses are, by nature, invisible. Black market labour conditions, human trafficking and government corruption are specifically designed to avoid detection. Many developing countries lack the staff and equipment to monitor working conditions, measure pollution and audit revenues.
Understandable as they are, though, they mean that corporate human rights violations are always one step ahead of the people trying to prevent them.

2. We Can't Mobilize Against Every Company
Two years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, in May of 2015, a shoe factory outside Manila burned to the ground. The company had no permit to operate, no sprinkler system and no fire exits. Seventy-two garment workers were killed.

So why hasn't this disaster become an international rallying point? Why hasn't the name of the factory, Kentex, become shorthand for dangerous working conditions like Rana Plaza was?
Because Kentex wasn't producing products for recognizable brand names or international consumers. It was making shoes almost exclusively for the domestic Filipino market.
This is the second challenge of measuring corporate human rights abuses: We only hear about a small percentage of them.

The vast majority of economic activity is carried out by small-scale companies, ones you've never heard of, mostly in the informal sector. Their goods don't travel across borders, and when they exploit their workers or harm communities, you don't hear about it. Even among multinational corporations, most don't sell their products directly to consumers, and a growing number are based in countries where consumer advocacy and international NGOs can't reach them. The 2015 Fortune Global 500 included almost 100 companies based in China alone. Even more were in sectors (like insurance, chemicals, concrete production) that sell directly to other businesses or deal in commodities. Name-and-shame campaigns only work when companies have a name that needs defending, and an increasing number of the world's companies don't.

3. We Don't Know What is Working
If you want to know how many multinational corporations have a statement on their website promising to respect human rights in their operations, that's not hard to find (it's 395). If you want to know the number of countries that have laws banning work for children under 14 years of age, that's easy too (it's 167). Dozens of organizations and initiatives track these commitments and release them in rankings and indices, stacking companies and countries according to the strength of the promises they've made.

What we're missing, though, is information about whether these promises are being kept. Of the companies that have committed to respecting human rights, how many of them are actually doing so in practice? Of all the countries with impeccable laws banning child labour, how many of them are actually inspecting workplaces to find it?

That's a lot harder to find out.

This distinction--between measuring commitments and measuring results--is critical to reducing human rights violations by companies. Airlines promises to improve their safety records aren't worth very much if we don't know how many of their planes crash every year. In our field, we can't determine which companies are the best at consulting communities before resettling them, which suppliers always pay their workers on time or which governments are the most likely to investigate abuses.

As the old business cliché goes, what gets measured gets managed. And right now, we're doing one without the other.

The most amazing thing about Aloha Airlines flight 243 might be that, after the top was ripped off, the pilot managed to land the plane safely. Even before the airlines and the regulators carried out their systemic reforms, they had already built an infrastructure--seat belts, oxygen masks, emergency runways--that kept accidents from becoming catastrophes.

In human rights, as we continue to develop our own systems for information-sharing and confront our own risks, it's critical that we have the information to identify our successes and contain our failures.

This may sound like an impossible task, but imagine the challenge faced by the aviation industry in the 1980s. Complicated technology, misaligned economic incentives, huge risks of getting it wrong. There was a time when plane crashes seemed as inevitable as multinational corporations abusing human rights.

The challenges we face in our own field are big, but they are not insurmountable. The first step toward preventing accidents, after all, is knowing where, how and why they happen.

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