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15 Jan 2015

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Human rights and big business: new ranking aims to drive race to top

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Originally published in Guardian Global Development Professionals

In the time it took to write this blog I received news of families in Uganda displaced by an oil treatment plant, a contractor sought in Kenya for alleged negligence in road safety, farmers dispossessed of land for a mine in Myanmar, and a threat to indigenous people in Nicaragua from another mega-project.

When big business arrives in poor neighbourhoods the consequences can too often be disastrous for local people: land grabs, pollution of air and water, unaccountable private security firms intimidating communities, few or no jobs for locals without the required skills, and the wealth created taken off-shore.

But equally, new investment can create opportunities for dignified jobs and secure livelihoods, better prices of local products, community development with clean water, sanitation, schools and clinics, and healthy tax revenue for the state to invest in the well-being of its people. While I was writing I received news of an oil company providing a borehole to neighbouring communities in Kenya that will give 5,000 people access to free water.

How do we get better wellbeing and fewer human rights abuses from the operations of big business? We need citizens’ action to demand transparency and accountability from companies, government action to create the regulation and incentives that direct investment towards social goods, and companies to take greater responsibility for their impact on the wellbeing and human rights of their workers, surrounding communities, and the societies they operate in.

The editorial director of the Economist Intelligence Unit Monica Woodley said at the 3rd Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights in December that more than 40% of CEOs thought that benchmarking companies on their human rights’ performance would make the biggest difference on the issue.

This year a group of investors and civil society organisations will launch the first wide-scale project to rank companies on their human rights performance. Five hundred of the top global companies from four key sectors – agriculture, ICT, apparel, and extractives – will be researched and ranked.


The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) will harness the competitive nature of the markets to drive better human rights’ performance through developing a transparent, publicly available benchmark and ranking.

Investors, companies, governments and consumers are increasingly aware of the impact of business on human rights. Two years after the Tazreen factory fire, the Bangladesh Accord has driven industry transparency, publicly reporting on factory inspections. The EU is soon to restrict exports on spyware surveillance technologies because of human rights’ concerns and US conflict mineral legislation has led to a 65% drop (pdf) in armed groups’ profits from the trade.

Public transparency, combined with public rankings of companies’ performance, is proving a powerful tool in driving a race to the top. For example, the Access to Medicine Index has brought advances in the pharmaceutical industry’s approach to providing and pricing medicines for poor people suffering from diseases such as HIV/Aids and “orphan” diseases – those ignored by large drug companies because they are diseases of the poor with little financial return. Oxfam’s Behind the Brands ranking has created competition between 10 food and beverage giants to eliminate land grabs, enhance the status of women in their supply chains, and reduce carbon emissions – their achievements have included Coco-Cola and Pepsi committing to zero-tolerance policies on land grabs, principally for sugar cane plantations.

The CHRB will learn from these powerful innovations. The ranking will reward good practice by companies and create a major incentive for poor performers to improve rapidly. The ranking will be a tool for campaigners, trade unions, investors and governments to encourage and press companies to deliver respect, dignity and essential freedoms to their workers, neighbouring communities, and the societies in which they invest. It will also be used by human rights’ advocates inside companies to press their own senior management to promote wellbeing and prevent abuse in their operations.