Making a difference on human rights in business

In this section

How do businesses impact human rights?

What does domestic and international law say about the responsibility of business to respect human rights?

How does the Commission engage with the business community to improve human rights?

Further human rights resources for businesses

We all participate in the business world in our everyday lives.

Just by living in our homes, going to work, driving our cars, using public transport, going to the shops, parks, beaches or schools or going to hospitals we interact directly or indirectly with the goings on of the business community. And those interactions bring human rights into play.

Whether we are employees or employers; consumers, wholesalers or retailers; service users or providers; business purchasers or business suppliers, human rights issues are raised.

The Commission works with business to help ensure the best possible respect and enjoyment of human rights in this context.

How do businesses impact human rights?

A company’s operations can have an impact, positive or negative, on the human rights of a broad set of people, including employees, customers, suppliers and their employees, business partners, and communities in which a company operates. In fact, there are hardly any human rights that are not relevant to business.

Australian companies operating in different countries and sectors may impact on different rights, however these are some of the most common business-related human rights impacts:

Impact on fair working conditions
Australian employers can impact a range of employment rights including the right to fair working conditions such as fair payment of wages and reasonable working hours; and the right to a safe and secure workplace including protection from harassment and bullying.

Impact on equality and dignity
Business can impact the right to equality and non-discrimination in the workplace particularly as it concerns women, people with disability, people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Indigenous peoples, the elderly, and people of diverse sexuality. This applies to employees and also to people accessing goods and services.

Impact on people’s health, life and security  
Businesses can have an impact on people’s right to health and have a responsibility to provide safe and secure worksites and places of business; prevent and redress industrial accidents, spillages or contamination; and to ensure the appropriate use of water, land and air.

Impact on housing and standards of living
Business need to respect the right to housing and an adequate standard by assessing their impact on housing, land, water, farming and employment needs of the local community in which they operate.

Impact on Indigenous peoples, land and culture
The rights of Australia’s Indigenous peoples can be impacted through how businesses develop or use land or otherwise affect the enjoyment of cultural practices. To the extent that Australian companies operate overseas, the rights of other Indigenous peoples may also be affected.

Human rights impacts in the supply chain
As possible purchasers of materials and products from the global economy, the business community has the responsibility to ensure that it does not contribute to or is otherwise directly linked to human rights abuses in their supply chains like child labour, slavery, trafficking, unfair wages or unacceptably poor working conditions.

What does domestic and international law say about the responsibility of business to respect human rights?

Domestic law

A range of Australian laws currently require companies to comply with human rights standards. While these laws are not always framed in human rights language, the standards they stipulate are in fact based on Australia’s international human rights obligations. Examples include:

  • Laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace and laws requiring employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Such laws address the rights to equality and non-discrimination, which are set out in various international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Laws regulating conditions of work. For example, occupational health and safety, terms and conditions of employment, minimum wage, collective bargaining, and prohibition of child labour and forced labour. Such laws address a range of labour rights, which are contained in various instruments adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and in major international human rights treaties.
  • Laws regarding Native Title. Such laws address economic, social and cultural rights including property rights, which are set out in various international human rights treaties or declarations including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Laws imposing liability on companies for certain acts which impact on human rights, such as bribery of foreign officials or complicity in gross human rights abuses such as war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity even if they occur overseas. Such laws are based on standards contained in a range of international instruments, for example the United Nations Convention against Corruption and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

However, an Australian company that complies with Australian laws (or the local laws of a country in which the company operates), does not necessarily satisfy all its responsibilities to respect human rights. In some cases, businesses need to go beyond domestic laws if they do not reach the level, or cases conflict with, international human rights standards.

International human rights standards

At an international level there have been significant advances in examining and clarifying how businesses can respect international human rights standards.

Much of this work has been led by Harvard Professor John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on business and human rights (SRSG) from 2005-2011.

In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council welcomed the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework for Business and Human Rights developed by the SRSG. This framework provided an authoritative statement on the relationship between business and human rights, recognising that while governments have the primary duty to protect and promote human rights, businesses have a distinct responsibility to respect human rights, essentially a “do no harm” standard. It also recognised the importance of access to effective judicial and non-judicial remedy when things go wrong.

In June 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to operationalise the framework. These principles provide a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse human impacts linked to business activity.

The Guiding Principles outline ways in which businesses can manage risks associated with meeting human rights obligations whether at home or abroad. These strategies focus on companies knowing and showing that they respect human rights, including by preparing a human rights policy, carrying out human rights due diligence (an ongoing process based on risk management), and implementing measures, including operational-level grievance mechanisms, to address human rights breaches.

As well as providing guidance on how businesses can meet their responsibility to respect human rights, the Guiding Principles direct governments as to the steps they should take in protecting against business-related human rights abuse. The principles are therefore likely to inform domestic legal and policy standards applicable to business in the future. They are an important focal point for business, government, and civil society as they work to strengthen their respective approaches to business and human rights.

Parallel to the UN system, the International Labour Organization has adopted numerous conventions on the rights of workers.

Voluntary initiatives

A wide variety of voluntary initiatives and guidelines aimed at improving business human rights performance have also been developed by individual companies, industry bodies, NGOs, inter-governmental bodies and multi-stakeholder groups.

These initiatives include voluntary codes of conduct, monitoring and reporting procedures, and socially responsible reporting indexes.  Key initiatives include:

  • United Nations Global Compact: The Global Compact is a voluntary initiative that was launched by the UN in 2000. Member organisations commit to integrating human rights principles into their business operations. It has over 4800 participating companies and hundreds of stakeholders from more than 125 countries. 
  • United Nations Global Compact Network Australia: The Global Compact has a network in Australia that works with local business, industry and other stakeholders to address how the Australian business community can improve human rights performance. Its Human Rights Leadership Group for Business aims to meet four times a year to assist with best practice sharing and learning in this space.
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises: The OECD guidelines are recommendations by governments for responsible business conduct in a global context. The Guidelines apply to multinational companies operating in or from the 30 OECD participating countries and 12 non-member countries and now include a stand-alone human rights chapter.
  • There is an Australian National Contact Point (ANCP) for the OECD guidelines located in the Department of the Treasury. In addition to promoting the Guidelines, it is the job of the ANCP to consider allegations (special instance complaints) that a multinational enterprise's behaviour is inconsistent with the Guidelines.
  • Global Reporting Initiative: The GRI is a non-profit organisation that provides businesses with a sustainability reporting framework to monitor and report on economic, environmental and social sustainability. The GRI also has specific human rights indicators. There is a GRI Focal Point in Australia at the St James Ethics Centre.
  • Equator Principles:  The Equator Principles are a risk management framework used by financial institutions to assess and manage environmental and social risks in project financing (particularly for major infrastructure and industrial projects).
  • Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights: These principles regard security and human rights in the extractive sector, which fall into three categories: risk assessment, relations with public security, and relations with private security.
  • Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes: These indexes track the performance of the world's leading companies in terms of economic, environmental and social criteria in order to provide benchmarks for human rights and sustainable practices.
  • FTSE4GOOD: This Index Series measures the performance of companies that meet globally recognised corporate responsibility standards including human rights indicators.
  • Good Business Register: This Australian register provides small to medium businesses with a way to report on responsible and sustainable business practices.

How does the Commission engage with the business community to improve human rights?

The Commission is engaging with the business community to improve human rights by undertaking research and consultation, providing resources and guidelines, and advocating for change. Key initiatives include:

Facilitating a national dialogue on business and human rights

On 30 July 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Global Compact Network Australia (GCNA) met with around 100 representatives of a number of Australia’s biggest companies, NGOs, government departments, investors and academia to discuss ways in which corporate strategies can be shaped with human rights objectives. The United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, mandated by the United Nations to disseminate and implement leading guidelines in this area, also attended and supported the event.

The Dialogue heard from 27 experts across seven topics, including the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, the role of government, access to remedy and grievance mechanisms, bringing a human rights lens to Indigenous engagement and human rights in the supply chain. The event concluded with a commitment from all stakeholder groups to continue the conversation and strive to ensure Australian companies are seen as international leaders on business and human rights issues.

The Commission and the GCNA will look to convene a further national dialogue in 2015.

The Dialogue was sponsored by Rio Tinto, KPMG and La Trobe Business School.


Providing guidance on integrating human rights into business

The Commission has developed factsheets, based on the UN framework, which support businesses to integrate a human rights approach into their policies and practices. The factsheets include:

  1. A fact sheet for all businesses that sets out the business case for addressing human rights. It also provides links to practical tools to help companies conduct human rights impact assessments and integrate human rights policy, practice and reporting into business operations.

    Factsheet 1: Integrating human rights into Australian business practice
  2. Sector specific factsheets that focus on human rights issues and practical tools relevant to the finance, mining and resources, and manufacturing and retail sectors.

    Factsheet 2: The Australian finance sector and human rights
    Factsheet 3: The Australian mining and resource sector and human rights
    Factsheet 4: The Australian manufacturing and retail sectors and human rights

Preventing and addressing discrimination and harassment

The Commission provides a wide range of information and resources to help employers prevent and address discrimination and harassment in the workplace—this includes discrimination on the basis of race, colour, national or ethnic origin; sex, pregnancy or marital status; age; disability; religion; sexual preference; trade union activity; or some other characteristic specified under anti-discrimination or human rights legislation.

The Commission’s Good Practice, Good Business website is the main hub for employers—it includes information on employer responsibilities, best practice guidelines, and complaints procedures. 

Preventing and addressing discrimination on the basis of criminal records   

Over recent years, the Commission has received a significant number of complaints from people alleging discrimination in employment on the basis of a criminal record. On the Record provides information and practical guidance on how to prevent criminal record discrimination in the workplace. It covers existing anti-discrimination and related laws, as well as best practice principles when recruiting or employing someone who may have a criminal record.

Preventing and addressing sexual discrimination and harassment  

Sex discrimination and harassment remain harsh realities for many Australian women who continue to experience unfair treatment in the workplace. The Commission has developed a code of practice to inform employers about how they can effectively prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.

In 2011, the Commission also successfully advocated for amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. As a result, the Act now prohibits discrimination against employees on the ground of family responsibilities and breastfeeding; and prohibits sexual harassment in workplaces conducted by way of new technologies. 

Promoting paid parental leave

Successfully balancing paid work with family responsibilities remains a major challenge for a large number of Australians. With women continuing to carry the majority of Australia’s unpaid caring work, creating workplaces that support women and men to balance paid work and share caring responsibilities is critical to achieving gender equality.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner of the Commission has played an instrumental role in the development of the Paid Parental Leave scheme and is continuing to lobby for further improvements. Further information on this work is available here.

Promoting women in leadership roles

The Commission has been actively promoting the importance of women’s representation in decision-making roles. The Commission is working towards two key outcomes including:

  • Significant growth in the number of women in senior leadership roles in Australian workplaces.
  • The implementation of systems within workplaces to sustain gender equality outcomes.

To achieve these aims, the Commission is: 

  • Bringing together some of Australia’s most influential and diverse male CEOs and Chairpersons in the Male Champions of Change group, which is using its influence to ensure the issue of women’s representation in leadership is elevated on the national business agenda.
  • Working closely with the ASX Corporate Governance Council towards 40% representation of each gender on the boards of publicly listed companies in Australia.

Further information on this work is available here.

Improving access to buildings and services

The Access to Buildings and Services Guidelines have been developed by the Commission to assist people with limited knowledge of building and discrimination law who want to look at ways to provide the best access possible to their buildings and services.

Good access to the buildings from which businesses operate and to the services they provide makes good business sense. Good access also benefits others including people with a disability, parents of young children in prams; older Australians; delivery people and shoppers with heavy bags or trolleys. Improving access also helps businesses and service providers to meet existing legal responsibilities under discrimination law.

Promoting disability action plans

Developing and implementing disability action plans can enable businesses to prevent and address discrimination against people with a disability in employment and in the provision of goods and services. The Commission provides access to over 500 examples of disability action plans through its online register. The register includes plans by corporations such as ANZ Bank, Westpac, and Telstra.

The Commission has also developed guidelines for developing mental health strategies in the workplace. 

Reducing barriers for mature age workers                                                 

The Commission is currently undertaking research and consultation in collaboration with the business sector in order to reduce the barriers to employment for mature age workers.

This work was initiated in 2010, when the Commission produced a report, which examined the issues of ageism and unlawful age discrimination within the workplace. The full report is available here.

Promoting respect for Indigenous land and culture  

The Commission is engaging with businesses, including those participating in the exploration and extraction of natural resources, to provide a greater understanding of the rights held by Indigenous Australians. 

In its annual Native Title reports, the Commission has provided guidance on how to undertake effective consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, where proposed measures or activities could impact their rights.

The Commission has also developed a range of CSR guidelines for resource development and mining on Aboriginal land. These include: 

There are some good examples of resource companies taking action to understand Indigenous cultures, laws and rights. The process leading to Rio Tinto’s Argyle Diamond Mine Participation Agreement is a well-known example of relationship-building between a resource company and Traditional Owners. 

Resolving complaints

The Australian Human Rights Commission can investigate certain human rights complaints relevant to business. This includes conciliating complaints regarding discrimination in the workplace or in the provision of goods or services.

Conciliation is a very successful way of resolving complaints. Feedback shows that most people find our process fair, informal and easy to understand. It also helps them to better understand the issues and come up with solutions that are appropriate to their circumstances.

In addition to this service, the Commission considers applications made by companies for specific exemptions under anti-discrimination laws; and intervenes in court proceedings involving human rights complaints lodged against companies.

Further information on the Commission’s complaints handling service is available here.

Further human rights resources for businesses

Australian resources

International resources