Data privacy: are human rights for sale?

How do you balance privacy and transparency? When they conflict, which should win?

See my post here on C&E Advisory’s website.


ParcelForced Labour?

If you open your door to a delivery man, you could be looking at a slave.

Cleaners and delivery drivers in the gig economy are being subject to financial penalties for not showing up for work – that’s beyond docking the pay for work not done: it’s a fine on top. According to the Guardian, for Parcelforce, part of the privatised Royal Mail Group, it can be £250 per day on top of the loss of £200  for a day not worked. However other companies, including DPD, have been accused of similar practices.

The practice must create tremendous pressure to go to work, even if you are sick or you have an important appointment. According to the ILO, “Forced labour refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” Automatic fines of an amount greater than the daily wage would seem to qualify.

No doubt the practice is entirely legal, probably through contracting with the workers concerned on the basis that they take responsibility for providing a service. What they also take is all the risk. It is very far from a contract negotiated between equal parties.

Royal Mail Group’s most recent Modern Slavery Act statement, for some reason, makes no mention of the problem.


announcements commentary

Is reporting child's play?

The ACCA has recently published a report on the reporting of child rights issues, in which I was involved.

The abuse of child rights is one of the most serious issues that a company can face. More than any other it has the potential to bring down any organisation associated with it. That is because the issue is so serious and the children concerned so vulnerable.

The reporting of child rights issues is perhaps one step removed, but nevertheless a crucial piece of the corporate accountability puzzle. ACCA’s paper starts from the relatively poor state of child rights reporting, acknowledging that few companies report much more than on the policy they have adopted on the issue.

The next step was to look at the role that reporting standards play in supporting child rights reporting. Overall the findings were that, with the exception of the GRI, the support that the main reporting standards provide is quite limited. While all the main standards (IIRC, Shift, GRI) are obviously consistent with transparent reporting on the issue, there is little explicit support. However the GRI is different since it has published more detailed guidelines in association with UNICEF.

ACCA also convened a roundtable to discuss what the reporting of child rights should look like. The main body of the report constitutes a set of guidelines, based on the structure of the UN Guiding Principles. It also provides examples of good practice from those companies that do demonstrate good practice in this area. This includes Lego’s guidelines on marketing and also H&M’s work with UNICEF and in piloting the Children’s Rights and Business Principles.

The ACCA report deserves credit for highlighting the issue – as there is a real need for companies to disclose more than their policies on the matter. But child rights reporting does present even more of a challenge than human rights reporting. Most human rights reporting (as indeed most corporate non-financial reporting in general) is directed at opinion formers. Yet the real people to whom accountability is owed are those whose rights are at stake. When it comes to child rights reporting, this implies a need is to communicate directly to children. That is not easy, although it can be done. This is a challenge that the ACCA paper identifies, but for which it does not offer significant guidance.

Which companies should take note? It is not only those that rely on extensive supply chains in which children may be exploited. It is also those that through the credit card products they deliver, can supply the finance for child abuse to take place. And of course it is also those that sell products designed to appeal to children. The test will be whether the coming months see more reporting of child rights issues.


The price of a cup of tea

The BBC’s investigation of workers’ conditions on tea plantations in Assam makes depressing reading. The squalor and poverty behind one of the world’s favourite drinks is appalling.

It is striking that the response of Unilever, a company often held up as a beacon of responsibility and sustainability, is so weak. According to the BBC, Unilever knows there is more to do, but that ‘progress has been made’. Presumably that means that conditions were even worse in the past. And does Unilever measure the impact of its operations on tea workers at the bottom of the supply chain?

Also, the Rainforest Alliance that operates one of the more widely used certification processes admits that its audit process, which is based on annual inspections, is inadequate. Moreover many supply chain inspection processes are based on less than annual inspections. So the BBC investigation has the potential to undermine confidence in a number of  well-known certification processes.

The response to the Rana Plaza disaster was a legally binding commitment involving the unions. Is it time for something similar for the tea industry?


Is there no accounting for human rights?

There should be! See my blog for the ACCA.


Amazon: a tale of zero-rights contracts

What makes a good retailer? Is it minimal packaging? Is it community donations? Or is it being able to use the toilet?

The answer, of course, must be all three. But while Amazon has worked on packaging and giving money away, it is working too hard on making it in the first place. According to a Channel 4 news item, Amazon warehouse workers are given ‘contracts’ barely worthy of the name with no job security and as a result can expect them to work under draconian conditions. This includes actively minimizing toilet breaks.

On the positive side, it does not yet appear that staff are expected to wear nappies to cope with the demands of the job. This has been an option actually suggested elsewhere, especially by some of the more zealous call centers.

Zero hours contracts are very widespread and typical for the cleaners in a great many offices. They transfer most of the risk of work onto the worker, but little of the reward.


Stealing ahead

Just because you can make a profit, doesn’t make it right.

Oxfam has pointed a finger at the large private interests that are reserving African land for profit while displacing those who have lived on the land and depend on it. Five or six hundred years ago in England it was called enclosure and led to the displacement of many thousands who were treated as criminals.

But today it is called progress. The World Bank, a third of whose whose projects lead to involuntary displacement, apparently thinks it’s a price worth paying.


Technology cuts both ways – does that make it neutral?

Technology can facilitate freedom and civil rights. But it can also facilitate oppression. That doesn’t make it neutral, it just means the jury’s still out.

There are a lot of interesting things going on that build on the apparently anarchic style of new technology – at least in California, as April Dembosky’s FT article describes. But there are also real problems with the use of surveillance technologies, as Salil Tripathi relates.

Having good points and bad points does not make a person, a company or a technology ‘on balance’ about neutral. It just means that our critical faculties should not be suspended.



A soft line on hard choices?

Microsoft has been accused of complicity in aiding the Russian State to crack down on NGOs. In standing firm against software piracy, it appears to have provided help to the Russian police.

One interesting aspect of this story is that it concerns civil and political rights, rather than economic, social and cultural rights, with which companies are usually more closely connected.

The situation described by the New York Times shows that working with States requires constant vigilance and can present many ethical choices.

Microsoft has said that it will be reviewing the situation.


Will ISO 26000 change the world?

The international standards organisation is producing a standard on social responsibility.

How much difference will this make? As I write on the Institute for Human Rights and Business blog, the interest that major political powers are showing in it is a cause for hope – even if their interventions are not always helpful.