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Opinion

What a Biden-Harris Administration Could Mean for Human Rights in Business

Photo credit: Dora C/ Flickr.

The last four years have been marked by uncertainty, cronyism, and institutional decay in the United States. The next four years offer an opportunity to rebuild and build anew. This will require leadership and commitment from the Biden-Harris Administration, as well as support and critical engagement by stakeholders outside government, especially the business community, labor and civil society organizations.

The need for greater respect for human rights by business is already reflected in the incoming administration’s key priorities, including pandemic recovery, tackling climate change and building a 21st century economy, achieving racial justice and restoring American leadership abroad. To achieve these ambitious goals, government and companies must work in partnership, and in close coordination with labor and civil society.

This work also requires a “whole of government” approach. The Administration must dismantle artificial divisions between domestic and foreign policy on issues like workers’ rights, climate change, and racial justice in order to fully leverage the influence of the U.S. Government and private sector, and address the systemic inequalities that have been exposed and exacerbated by the Trump Administration and the COVID-19 pandemic. One way of organizing this could be to build on the U.S. National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct, adopted at the end of the Obama Administration but largely neglected over the last four years. Expanding its scope – and taking nothing off the table in advance – could provide a critical organizing tool that helps the government tackle these issues in a consistent and coordinated rights-respecting manner.

As individuals who have worked on, promoted, and taught business and human rights – both inside government and out – we have compiled an ambitious but achievable set of goals for a Biden-Harris Administration as it undertakes its agenda to “build back better”. This list is not exhaustive; we have chosen to focus on ideas and actions that are already well understood and actionable. We hope it provides a helpful starting point for outreach and engagement with business, labor, and civil society.

Building Back Better and Respect for Workers’ Rights At Home and Abroad

The Biden-Harris campaign’s focus on making the domestic investments needed to help workers succeed in the global economy is a necessary foundation for a strong and effective approach to addressing business and human rights at home and abroad. President-elect Biden has already signaled his interest in putting human rights at the center of the economic recovery from COVID-19. This “Build Back Better” approach recognizes the need to return to our economic justice roots – including protecting the right to organize, guaranteeing safe and healthy work environments and creating new high-paying union jobs – while also modernizing our social contract by guaranteeing the right to health care, supporting working families by expanding access to affordable childcare and paid family leave, and ensuring women receive equal pay for equal work.

This strong domestic approach must be complemented by similar work focused on activities abroad, particularly with regard to how U.S. companies – and the U.S. government – treat workers in global supply chains. Specific elements of this “worker first” agenda should include:

  • Including strong and enforceable labor rights – and environmental – language in trade agreements, building on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement provisions that received broad bipartisan support, and enforcing existing provisions in trade preference programs like the Generalized System of Preferences and the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
  • Developing clearer and more transparent procedures for the broader enforcement of Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibits the importation of goods made with forced labor.
  • Leading by example by leveraging the government’s vast purchasing power to enforce standards of responsible business conduct, including worker rights protections and due diligence procedures, into eligibility for public procurement.
  • Expanding “worker voice” in the development and implementation of economic policies, including through the reform of existing trade and other advisory committee structures that to date have marginalized the interests of non-business stakeholders.
  • Prioritizing resources to address occupational safety and health enforcement at home and to support workplace safety initiatives around the world, including to address risks exacerbated by the pandemic.

Building a 21st Century Economy and Tackling Climate Change

The growth of new industries, from renewable energy to digital technology, will help us develop a modern and resilient post-COVID economy. But for a fast transition to be sustained, it must also be fair. These industries must also operate in a manner that respects the rights of workers, communities and all people who benefit from their products and services.

By now it is clear that digital services, surveillance technology, and social media platforms play integral roles in social mobilization, media ecosystems, and democratic processes. The U.S. must lead by example by enacting a comprehensive privacy law, clarifying platform responsibility for illegal content, ensuring digital competition and consumer protection, and providing a safety net for workers in the “gig economy.” The cross-border nature of these services and the current dominance of American companies also provide an opportunity for the administration to work with these companies and other democratic governments to set expectations for responsible business conduct and leverage support for independent media, vulnerable communities and human rights defenders.

In our rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, displaced workers need new opportunities, while renewable energy companies need to move more quickly to adopt robust human rights due diligence to prevent the abuse in their own operations and supply chains, like those associated with other land- and mineral-intensive industries.

A rights-respecting approach to our 21st century economy should include:

  • Working with the business community, educators, and worker representatives to empower and expand the tech workforce, while protecting competition and consumer rights.
  • Pushing for a comprehensive privacy and data protection law, which is overdue and should be accompanied by efforts to clarify and bolster existing enforcement capacity.
  • Clarifying social media platform’s responsibility for content that has been adjudicated illegal, while preserving safe harbor protections that allow them to address “harmful but lawful” content.
  • Building a cross-Atlantic consensus on cross-border data transfers and reestablishing our international leadership on internet governance.
  • Requiring companies investing in high-risk sectors abroad like renewable energy that receive U.S. financing or other support to undertake effective human rights due diligence as a precondition to receiving support.
  • Advancing human rights due diligence reporting requirements and disclosure provisions focused on companies’ human rights policies and practices.
  • Requesting the State Department to adopt and disseminate a policy on how to utilize U.S. government resources to protect human rights defenders under threat for their work related to business activities.

Achieving Racial Justice and Promoting Human Rights

The movement to end institutional racism and achieve racial justice in the United States must acknowledge the instrumental role that companies can play in either worsening or ending racism. Many companies have stepped up with bold statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but fewer have taken concrete steps to address racial inequalities within their own organizations and supply chains.

As part of its broad efforts to promote racial justice across America, there are several steps the Biden-Harris Administration should consider to press companies to play a positive role:

  • Leveraging the U.S. Government’s own influence by expanding procurement from Black-owned businesses and from businesses with policies and practices of treating employees with equality and dignity.
  • Expanding domestic and international entrepreneurship programs like the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and ensure participation is representative, with an emphasis on creating opportunities for marginalized groups.
  • Setting a positive example for the private sector by ensuring federal employees are representative of the diversity of the United States, from entry-level employees to Cabinet positions.
  • Ending contracts with private prison and other security companies with a history of abuse against prisoners or immigrants.
  • Promoting action by business to tighten or end firearms sales.

Conclusion

The Biden-Harris Administration has a historic opportunity to integrate respect for human rights into all aspects of government policy at home and abroad – including how government regulates and otherwise engages with business. In order to achieve more equitable and sustainable growth, the Administration’s approach must be integrated across government and with outside stakeholders, in order to best leverage the strengths of government, business, labor and civil society.

Eric Biel is Senior Advisor at the Fair Labor Association, and was previously Associate Deputy Undersecretary at the Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

Jason Pielemeier is Policy Director at the Global Network Initiative, and previously led the Office of Internet Freedom, Business, and Human Rights at the Dept. of State.

Marti Flacks is Deputy Director & Head of the North America Office at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and was previously Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council.

This piece was written in their personal capacities, and the views expressed are their own.