Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch on business and human rights

Nicholas McGeehan, Middle East Researcher for Human Rights Watch, has kindly answered a few questions on the topic of business and human rights, touching on issues such as the value of the Guiding Principles and forced labour in Qatar. You can follow him on twitter @Ncgeehan

Has the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles assisted an organisation like Human Rights Watch in addressing corporate respect for human rights?

Undoubtedly. The UN Guiding Principles provide NGOs with a framework with which to press corporations to adhere to minimum standards.  Nobody is claiming the guidelines are perfect and groups who want to see change obviously prefer standards that are legally binding and enforceable, but human rights advocacy is typically about persuasion and incremental standard setting. In that regard the challenge of the UN Guiding Principles is to make them effective as possible, and in doing so convince corporations of the value of such regulation.

Have legal avenues proven useful to challenging corporate behaviour in relation to human rights abuses, or does negative publicity remain the key tool?

For an NGO like Human Rights Watch, it’s about convincing the corporate sector to be part of the solution not part of the problem, and naming and shaming those that don’t. There is often more to be gained from a policy of engagement than one of confrontation but obviously that approach can have its limits and there are times when it’s important to point out hypocrisy and double standards. So, yes negative publicity remains the key tool. As to the most effective tool, corporations will typically place legal threats in a higher bracket of risk than negative publicity, but with brand value now an integral part of corporate strategy, there are probably some companies who regard negative publicity as more costly than legal action.

In relation to Qatar 2022, do you think that European construction firms risks becoming complicit in forced labour?

Qatar and its neighbours operate labour systems that facilitate the trafficking and forced labour of migrant labour so yes there’s a very obvious risk that workers further down their labour supply chain will be subjected to these and other very serious rights abuses. Any company that does not closely monitor the practices of subcontractors lower down the supply chain simply cannot claim that their projects are abuse free, and very few companies do such monitoring. The problem in Qatar right now is that despite the negative publicity over the issue of migrant worker abuses, the government is still refusing to implement meaningful reforms and has opted for a series of cosmetic tweaks to the system, which it hopes will alleviate international concerns. It’s a bad strategy and it won’t fix the problems and that makes it even more important that the corporate sector step up and do what it can to fill the regulatory void. So far they’ve yet to rise to that challenge.

What do you think is the way forward for ensuring companies respect human rights during operations overseas?

It’s difficult for me to give a global overview, but I can certainly comment on the Gulf region and more specifically its very lucrative construction sector. Most construction companies have tended to skirt over the fact that operating in the Gulf places them in very clear conflict with their codes of sustainability and fall back on the defence that they do not directly employ the men who have been brought in from places like Nepal, India and Bangladesh to sustain this construction boom. But that’s an unsatisfactory response to such a serious problem and there are very simple steps that construction companies can take that will on the one hand protect all the workers on their projects and on the other protect themselves from legal and reputational risk. At the very least they can ensure that workers have their passports, they can esnure that workers receive their wages on time, they can ensure that employers don’t pass on recruitment fee costs to workers, and they can ensure that workers live in housing that meets basic standards.

Does Human Rights Watch take a view on the proposals for a binding treaty on business and human rights?

I don’t believe we have taken a formal position on the issue. From my own perspective, if corporations were legally bound to respect human rights like the prohibition on forced labour and slavery, then the construction sites of the Gulf region would probably be much safer and happier places and the Gulf states might actually operate an equitable model of labour migration rather than the systematic exploitation that we see now.

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