Human rights due diligence is part of the cost of business in SE Asia

Coca-Cola's Vietnam operation is working with Oxfam to improve its human rights record

Recently, it seems that not a week goes by without a lead story in the English-language press raising serious concerns about the adverse impact of some food and beverage companies on their workers, surrounding communities or on the environment.

Only last week, for example, the Cambodia Daily reported that the Thai Human Rights Commission backed the claims of Cambodian farmers, who claimed that a Thai sugar conglomerate—one of the biggest sugar producers in the world—illegally forced them off their land.

In fact, all food and beverage firms doing business in Southeast Asia or sourcing products from the region are exposed to varying degrees of human rights risks. The issues include land and housing rights abuses, labour rights violations and infringement of freedom of expression.

While more often than not, corporations will refute any allegations of abuses, Erinch Sahan, private sector advisor at Oxfam, believes that a number of them are slowly beginning to understand that “corporate social responsibility is fast becoming the buzzword” for those who “want to demonstrate that they are going beyond a focus on short-term profits and are meeting the expectations of consumers and society”.

So what should companies be doing to avoid harming those around them, as well as those who they may not even know exist but who often bear the brunt of development?

According to regional rights experts quoting the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights—the most authoritative set of international standards pertaining to corporate responsibility for human rights—companies should first and foremost exercise due diligence.

This simply means that companies should look into their operations, including in their supply chains, to report publicly on what they find and to address any shortcomings and grievances they identify.

As pointed out by Bobbie Sta. Maria, Southeast Asia researcher and representative of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an online information hub monitoring positive and negative impacts of companies worldwide: “Responsible companies accept that human rights due diligence is part of the cost of doing business.”

When companies do not accept this, they put at risk their own reputation, and worse, become complicit in harm on people who otherwise bear the costs of abusive practices, such as victims of labour rights or land rights abuses,“ she told Foodnavigator-Asia.

Companies must devote resources for human rights due diligence, such as dedicated staff who will treat human rights issues as part of operational considerations, and not just discrete image or public relations concerns.“

She singled out Coca-Cola, the beverage giant that has faced a wide array of accusations of abuses ranging from allegedly contributing to water depletion in India to union busting in Colombia, as one example of a corporation that now appears to be taking its due diligence seriously.

Under its new land rights policy, Coke’s spokesperson, Ben Sheidler, told FoodNavigator-Asia the company is trying to eradicate land grabs throughout its supply chain and “is conducting independent social, environmental and human rights assessments in critical cane sugar sourcing countries“ for its system. 

The company also disclosed its top three sugar suppliers and committed to publicly listing these within three years. This is quite an unprecedented move, which many say is bound to make Coke’s supply chain more transparent and therefore also more accountable.

Another food multinational worthy of a closer look as far as blueprints for business and human rights are concerned is Unilever.

Like Coke, the conglomerate also claims to be working closely with Oxfam in order to improve its human rights record.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-Asia, Unilever’s media representative, Andraiana Mantrangou, said that back in 2013, the food giant agreed to cooperate with Oxfam’s research into its Vietnamese supply chain as it wanted to “better understand how to effectively implement the UNGPs [UN Guiding Principles] and how we could further improve and refine the labour standards of our employees and workers.“

And just like Coca-Cola, Unilever embraced the UN’s document and made efforts to incorporate them into its operations—a move that really should be the very first step for any company that wants to ensure it is happy with its social and environmental footprint.

In order to embed these principles throughout our business, we are aligning our internal code policies and have created a new responsible sourcing policy with clear processes to report actual or suspected breaches.

“It breaks new ground by defining a ‘continuous improvement ladder’ to help our suppliers move from a base level of ‘do no harm‘ to ‘good practice‘ and ultimately up to ‘best practice’.”

All in all, food and beverage companies that want to ensure their on-the-ground operations remain humane should start off by reading up on the UN Guiding Principles and then devising a strategy on incorporating them into their operations.

However, it cannot be emphasised enough that a land rights or responsible sourcing policy accounts for nothing more than a temporary public relations stunt that will most likely be exposed by civil society organisations or journalists, if not backed by actions.

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