Introducing Shift’s Financial Institutions Practitioners Circle

New York, NY

Shift, the leading center of expertise on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, is delighted to announce the launch of our Financial Institutions Practitioners Circle, a space carefully designed for a small number of leading practitioners from banks and export credit agencies (ECAs) to discuss common human rights challenges and co-create cutting-edge solutions that put people first.

The first generation of the FIs Circle will gather virtually for the first time in early March and will include a limited number of practitioners from institutions in the financial sector who have demonstrated a serious commitment to advancing their understanding and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles.

Discussion and learning in the FIs circle will be facilitated by experts from Shift, who will also contribute creative solutions that we have been fine-tuning in our one-on-one engagements with financial institutions. Together, through group workshops and discussions, practitioners will foster leading practice by sharing and co-creating approaches to putting the responsibility to respect human rights into practice in the FIs context.

Shift is committed to disseminating the learnings from this group for the benefit of a wider audience of FIs practitioners and other stakeholders.

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Participant selection

Shift is currently evaluating candidates for the first generation of the FIs Circle. Admissibility is determined through an in-depth discussion, based on where the organization is on their human rights journey and, regardless of its level of maturity, its commitment to sharing its experiences and improving performance.

To learn more about the FIs Circle, or to inquire about joining, please email communications [at] shiftproject [dot] org.

Opening Remarks by John Ruggie at the Conference “Human Rights and Decent Work in Global Supply Chains”

The recording of these remarks is available here.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights are approaching the tenth year since their unanimous endorsement by the Human Rights Council. It is encouraging that their uptake continues apace, not only by businesses but beyond. For example, human rights factors make up the bulk of the S elements in ESG investing, with investors clamoring for more robust metrics. Also, global sports bodies, including the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, have made human rights a mandatory part of their host city agreements.

The UNGPs were conceived to generate an ongoing interactive dynamic of a smart mix of measures – voluntary and mandatory, national and international – that would strengthen the business and human rights regime over time.

But I confess that governments, with exceptions, have been a weak link in this dynamic. So, I am pleased to see action picking up on two significant fronts in the EU context.

The first is human rights due diligence. This is the foundational construct for businesses to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for their adverse human rights impacts – throughout their operations and business relationships.

The experience of the past decade has demonstrated that many multinationals understand the importance and utility of human rights due diligence. But the record also shows shortcomings and weaknesses in implementation.

In response, Germany, like several other governments, is giving serious consideration to making human rights due diligence mandatory, as foreshadowed in its 2016 National Action Plan. Similarly, mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence is on the legislative agenda of the European Commission.

…many details still need to be worked out. Perhaps none is more important than the question of liability. It may be helpful for me to recall that the UNGPs foresaw the possibility of liability…

I appreciate that many details still need to be worked out. Perhaps none is more important than the question of liability. It may be helpful for me to recall that the UNGPs foresaw the possibility of liability, and how it might play out in practice. The Commentary to UNGP 17 state that:

Conducting appropriate human rights due diligence should help business enterprises address the risk of legal claims against them by showing that they took every reasonable step to avoid involvement with an alleged human rights abuse.

Of course, case-specific facts would also be considered in any such assessment.

A second area that shows progress is the strengthening of non-financial disclosure requirements, including on human rights. Indeed, there is a rush into this space by private international standard setting bodies, large asset managers, alliances of consulting firms and the like, all wanting a piece of the ESG standards market.

The EU, as the world’s largest trading bloc, has a golden opportunity here to provide authoritative standards, which inevitably would have international spillover effects.

Here the EU, as the world’s largest trading bloc, has a golden opportunity to provide authoritative standards, which inevitably would have international spillover effects.

Perhaps there is still time for the Germany Presidency in collaboration with the Commission to establish a measure of policy coherence across the related EU initiatives, so as not to contribute to overwhelming businesses with potentially overlapping or, worse, inconsistent requirements.

Progress on these two fronts would contribute significantly to the overarching concern of this conference with promoting decent work in supply chains.

Indeed, I believe it would go even further and help inform the grand debate taking place on both sides of the Atlantic on the social purpose of the corporation, on the need for it to better serve a broad array of stakeholders in addition to shareholders.

So in conclusion, thanks again, and I wish you every success on the journey ahead.


John G. Ruggie, the Berthold Beitz Research Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has served as UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning, and as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business & Human Rights. He chairs the Board of Shift.

The Global Pandemic Reveals what it will take for Stakeholder Capitalism to Succeed: a Focus on the Most Vulnerable People

A version of this article originally appeared in Ethical Corporation Magazine

This article is available in PDF format. To download it click here.

The human toll of COVID-19 is growing daily, with over 3 million confirmed cases globally and 26 million unemployment claims in the US alone – well before April is out. The burden is falling disproportionately on the people least able to bear it: those in low-paying jobs, exposed to health risks on the frontline of the pandemic response; losing those jobs altogether in western workplaces and overseas supply chains; or cooped up in worker dormitories far from home and without protection. Against this backdrop, the reactions of business to the pandemic are under as much scrutiny as those of governments. Even mainstream business media are keeping a log of the ‘sinners and saints.’

 One clear rule of thumb is emerging as to who is getting their response to the COVID-19 crisis (at least mostly) right: those companies that focus first on the most vulnerable.

As the accounting continues, one clear rule of thumb is emerging as to who is getting their response to the crisis (at least mostly) right: those companies that focus first on the most vulnerable. The language of ‘vulnerability’ peppers the news and commentary as never before. Yet it is far more than just a label for the people who stand to lose the most as this crisis unfolds. It is the essential lens we must apply if a new stakeholder capitalism is to succeed: the difference between how our economies have worked in the past and how we need them to work going forward.

Before the pandemic hit, there was already a growing movement away from Milton Friedman’s idea that business should focus on maximizing shareholder returns. The gross and growing inequalities in our societies are the now inescapable result of externalizing risks and costs of business onto vulnerable ecosystems, workers and communities.

And so, a return to a supposedly kinder ‘stakeholder’ capitalism had begun to grow in favor, at least in most developed economies. It called for business to respond to the interests of ‘stakeholders’ beyond shareholders alone. In just the last nine months we had seen nearly 200 CEOs espouse the idea in last year’s Business Roundtable statement; the head of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, urge company leaders to take it seriously; and the Davos Manifesto from January’s World Economic Forum identify it as essential to, “shared and sustained value creation.”

Yet this new narrative of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ always risked being far less radical than it appeared – potentially even the ‘virtuous side hustle’ some have feared from the get-go. Why? At least in part because the categories of stakeholder beneficiaries – employees, suppliers, customers and communities – were defined so generically that they necessitated little real change from the status quo. 

The new narrative of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ always risked being far less radical than it appeared – potentially even the ‘virtuous side hustle’ some have feared from the get-go.

Take ‘employees.’ The term includes those generously compensated in safe jobs as well as those whose pay, security and benefits are vulnerable to cost-cutting initiatives. It also excludes altogether people whose roles are externalized by evolving business models and strategies into categories of ‘contractor’ or the nominally ‘self-employed.’ The category of ‘suppliers’ blurs the line between large, strategic partners and small or more remote businesses whose cash flow is fragile and whose workers’ wages are the first to give under pressure. 

Similarly, ‘customers’ are by definition those who can afford to access a company’s products or services; yet the term does not call out those who are stretched to do so, and excludes, of course, those who simply can’t. Meanwhile, ‘communities’ can continue to be viewed as the beneficiaries of corporate philanthropy rather than groups whose health, livelihoods and opportunities may be directly affected by company actions and decisions.

With all this flexibility in interpretation, the new ‘stakeholder capitalism’ built a broad church. It certainly embraces companies committed to understanding how business practices may harm people across their value chain, and to reducing those impacts. However, it also readily accommodates companies hoping for little more than marginal adjustments to usual practice, or continuing to bank on business models that embed risks to people at their core. Little surprise, then, that some CEOs seemed taken aback to find that their new commitments raised expectations of real and substantive changes to address the inequalities of today.

Yet this pandemic, with all its awful consequences, is fast removing the ambiguity about what matters. At least in the Global North, it is showing the lens of vulnerability to be essential for businesses to determine how they should act, and a guide for how popular opinion will react. This focus on vulnerable people, once seen by many as idealistic, is becoming a primary expectation from investorspublic figurescivil society and business commentators alike.

A focus on vulnerable people, once seen by many as idealistic, is becoming a primary expectation from investors, public figures, civil society and business commentators alike.

Companies are making decisions about their employees, being explicitly called on to take pay cuts at the top to preserve jobs at the bottom – and increasingly doing so. Some businesses quickly committed to keep paying the hourly workers providing canteen, cleaning or other services in their facilities; a growing number have increased sick leave and benefits to workers in gig economy roles, whose finances and health are often most at risk.

We see the same expectation to focus on vulnerability in supply chains. More companies are now committing to ease cash flow for businesses in their value chains whose viability and workforces are at risk by paying smaller suppliers first and fastest or extending loans or deferred payment terms to customers in need.

Meanwhile, companies are identifying and prioritizing those customers who are most exposed to harm, with grocery stores offering earlier hours to the elderly, and some key service providers prioritizing the vulnerable over those who can better cope. And we see businesses thinking afresh about impacts on communities. Some that can afford to make new hires are drawing from local, hard-hit populations; others are collaborating with governments to address systemic risks to those most in need

Of course, the trend is far from universal. Many companies have genuinely little latitude in how they can respond, lacking both resilience and options. And far too many that are not so constrained have nevertheless defaulted to protecting their shareholders and leaders at the expense of the vulnerable.

But the tally is now being kept of which companies are rising to the occasion and which are failing the test. This is not a blip that will be forgotten, it is an acceleration and proliferation of an idea whose time had already come.

The same Milton Friedman who spawned the ‘shareholder primacy’ theory that stakeholder capitalism now proposes to replace, ironically also wrote, “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and politically available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

It can no longer be viewed as impossible to make it the ‘new normal’ once we emerge from the pandemic. We just need to make it inevitable.

The idea that businesses must look beyond generic categories of ‘stakeholder’ to hone in on those individuals in workplaces, supply chains, transportation networks and communities who are most vulnerable is alive and available. It is embodied in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: a ready blueprint for governments and businesses to reorient capitalism to protect and respect those most at risk: a true ‘stakeholder capitalism.’

Companies that have led the way in putting the UN Guiding Principles into practice have shown a more natural reflex to focus on the most vulnerable in their response to the crisis, getting it right while others have fumbled.  Yet it is the crisis itself that is now taking the lens of vulnerability to scale. It can no longer be viewed as impossible to make it the ‘new normal’ once we emerge from the pandemic. We just need to make it inevitable.

Realizing Trade Union Rights: Diagnosing Barriers and Moving to Action

Between 2010-2014, the Peruvian fruit growing company Composol was in ceaseless conflict with its workers and their union representatives. It had strong turnover of staff, low motivation among those remaining, and, according to its own accounts, very high litigation cost due to constant cases before the labor courts. The company’s labor troubles were even featured as a prominent case example in complaints filed by Peruvian and international unions with the US Department of Labor and the European Commission related to beneficial trade agreements.

It was not until 2014 that the company started to realize how much of an impact this was having on its business, and decided more meaningful action was necessary. Together with local and internationally focused unions and business associations, the company embarked on a path towards fully embracing social dialogue and trade union rights. Through a process of trust-building, negation training and capacity building on labor rights -among others- the company and unions were able to fundamentally transform their relationship. In addition to more satisfied workers and meeting company commitments, results also included lowered costs in recruitment, transportation and legal fees, among many others.In the words of Javier Morales, Camposol’s Managing Director of the Fruit and Vegetable Division: “We have been able to be profitable while focusing on people. (…) Now workers come to Camposol because they choose to, not because they have to as in the past. Competitors are raising the salaries to attract workers more but it is not the only thing that workers seek. What they seek is also a healthy emotional relationship with their employer. We demonstrate that we can align the interests of workers and shareholders.” Perhaps most central to turning things around was the realization that in order to ensure respect for trade union rights companies need to take proactive steps to realize them in practice. This, in a nutshell, is the key message of our newest publication ‘Respecting Trade Union Rights in Global Value Chains’, developed with Mondiaal FNV, to help companies approach trade union rights proactively.

What are trade union rights?

What are trade union rights?

Freedom of association and the rights to collective bargaining (collectively referred to in the publication as “trade union rights”) are recognized by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as one of a set of four core labor standards that all governments and companies should adhere to. While they are fundamental rights in and of themselves, trade union rights are also recognized as “enabling rights,” meaning that respecting these rights can often lead to the fulfillment of a number of other labor rights, including adequate wages, reasonable working hours, workplace safety, and a work environment free from discrimination and harassment.

Action on trade union rights is hard…

Those who have worked on trade union rights know that this is all easier said than done.

While many companies list respect for trade union rights in their policy commitments, pledge to adhere to industry standards, and participate in multi-stakeholder initiatives, many still struggle to identify and implement meaningful action to address the risks to trade union rights in their global value chains. 

In our work with Mondiaal FNV we recognized three categories of barriers that often create challenges for global companies to ensure respect for trade union rights in their global operations and value chains:

  1. External factors: Respecting trade union rights in many contexts can be extremely challenging: local laws may prohibit them, union-relations may be seen to be political, and local business partners may not see the value in changing what already works.
  2. Business models and practices: some companies have risks embedded in how they are structured or in how they operate. For instance, extensive reliance on contract labor, or sourcing strategies that rely upon production in markets with lower labor costs and often weaker labor protections.
  3. Internal company governance and due diligence pitfalls: a number of challenges arise from weaknesses in corporate governance and due diligence. For example, a lack of understanding of trade union rights, limited visibility into conditions in the supply chain, or strong commitments on paper not being translated into action on the ground.

Our publication provides a detailed diagnostic tool with simple questions to help companies identify the specific barriers they might face in a particular context or relationship. 


… but there are ideas and experiences to inspire action

We have seen that those companies who identify their salient human rights issues (one of the practical steps the publication suggests) now often include freedom of association and right to collective bargaining among them. I believe it reflects a broader understanding of how interconnected human rights impacts are and that one of the most sustainable ways to improve human rights for workers—in a way that also brings benefits to business—is to give workers a voice and take proactive steps to reduce barriers and reinforce constructive relationships that enable them to organize, make their voice heard and take a stake in the long-term interest of the company.

But identifying trade union rights as important is only the first step. We need to move to action. Our work with companies on these issues has surfaced a range of practical approaches companies are taking to address these barriers in new and meaningful ways.  Whether it is the Freedom of Association protocol that was developed by apparel and footwear companies with local suppliers and stakeholders in Indonesia to address the locally challenging context for trade union rights or the way that companies have collaborated in Mexico to jointly apply leverage to improve union relations.

Different types of approaches are almost certainly going to be necessary to address the range of situations a company might face and the different types of barriers that may be present.  The resource offers a continuum of different types of leverage that can be applied internally and externally, with practical case examples to illustrate these approaches in practice:  for example, working jointly with peer companies and international and local trade unions to advance collective bargaining to improve living wages in the garment sector, or exerting collective leverage with peers vis-à-vis a government to improve laws and regulations that protect trade union rights (both of which have concrete case examples in the publication).

Our aim is to inspire companies with ideas for concrete action, to move from recognizing risks to trade union rights to taking meaningful action to address those risks, by drawing from a menu of potential options for action. We hope it can provide companies with a roadmap for developing thoughtful, meaningful and targeted actions necessary to tackle these issues more effectively in practice.