On doing business ethically, do business representative organisations adequately represent Irish companies?

A few weeks back, I outlined the submissions made by Chambers Ireland and Ibec to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade consultation on the development of an national action plan on business and human rights for Ireland. The positions taken by both business representative organisations are a source of disappointment for those advocating for a move away from voluntary approaches to corporate responsibility for human rights, to one which involves more binding obligations, which may carry real consequences for companies implicated in human rights violations. The submission from the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) continues in this vein, warning that increased legislative or administrative responsibilities for Irish companies will harm the competitiveness of smaller Irish businesses. It would seem to do a disservice, not just to Ireland’s efforts at embedding the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, but also to the efforts of Irish companies who seek to conduct their business ethically.

The ISME submission starts positively, stating that the Association’s members are “committed to complying with national and international human rights standards”. The problem, however, is that businesses are not always aware of their duties and responsibilities or what human rights infractions may occur as a result of their activities. Therefore, the submission recommends that a key focus of the national action plan should be on awareness raising and education. This is an important component of advancing the business and human right agenda without doubt, but even the Association wants a minimalist approach: communications should be “kept to a single page where possible”. And instead of in-depth training, youtube videos or online courses are favoured.

“Respecting the needs of SMEs”

The submission then turns to the issue of respect, not the corporate responsibility to respect human rights as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, but respect of the needs of small and medium business enterprises. In particular, how their “constrained resources” limit their ability in this context:

Small businesses do not have capacity to comply with any undue or onerous burden of compliance with the plan. No provisions can be introduced that would inhibit trade. Businesses must be trusted to adhere to standards without requiring any reporting elements.

This is especially the case when SMEs are compared to larger companies with their greater resources (although that does not prevent the latter from making a similar argument). Smaller businesses, ISME contends, “cannot be expected to invest much time in the issue”. Instead, a simple checklist should be devised and distributed, along with the establishment of a contact point with whom a concerned business can communicate.

ISME expresses its very strong opposition to making compliance with human rights a requirement for public procurement. The Association is “entirely opposed to any new provisions being added to public procurement rules unless they pro-actively assist SMEs in winning public procurement contracts”. Moreover, there is “no justification” for doing so. This is despite the UN Guiding Principles, which ISME claims to support, expressly recognising that States’ commercial activities with business, including through public procurement, provide “unique opportunities to promote awareness of and respect for human rights by those enterprises, including through the terms of contracts”.

The concluding note of the submission captures the essential views of this business representative organisation regarding the proposed developments on business and human rights:

It should be assumed that all businesses are compliant unless proven otherwise and there should be no mandatory reporting. Thus, asking businesses to report on their activities or compliance in this area would be tantamount to increasing their paperwork burden. This would further complicate an already complicated area.

ISME’s contribution makes some good suggestions, but overall it disappoints. It is an example of business representative organisations being content to associate themselves with the cause of human rights, by expressing support for the UN Guiding Principles and claiming to welcome the Irish government’s efforts in this area, but of demonstrating an unwillingness to go much further than engaging in consultation and awareness-raising on the topic. Anything else, seemingly, is seen as too high a price to pay.

This stance is not just disappointing for human rights advocates, but it also undervalues the good work in promoting human rights that is being done by Irish companies – supporting marriage equality, fair trade and ethical sourcing to name a few. One suspects that Irish companies that try to do business ethically would not be opposed to some of the proposals made by organisations like Amnesty and Trócaire if they seem them as contributing to better protection for human rights. Given the antipathy apparent in their submissions, it can legitimately be asked whether business representative organisations, like ISME, Ibec and Chambers Ireland, really represent the stance of Irish companies on respecting human rights and doing business ethically.

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