Do Lawyers Obstruct Progress in Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability?

Are lawyers an obstacle to progress on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability?

Having followed the evolution of the discussion on Corporate Social Responsibility, Creating Shared Value and Corporate Responsibility, and having witnessed the myriad attempts by corporations to define their policies and efforts in this area, I am constantly amazed by the decisions made in international corporations when it comes to issues of potential reputation risk and risk management.

A case in point is the disaster which occurred in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh on the 24th of April, 2013. A building collapsed and over 1,100 people working in the garment business perished. According to Michael Bride, Union of Food and Commercial workers of America, [2] “The building in question was built three stories higher than authorized, cracks had appeared in the building the day before and although other workers in the building were evacuated, the garment workers who died were forced to go to work under threat of having a month’s pay deducted if they refused. There was a failure of government oversight in the building planning process, the corporate responsibility of western retailers and brands and a dearth of worker representation, the workers did not have a union to back them up when they refused to enter the building”. In the absence of basic workplace health and safety standards, these workers were the victims of systematic human rights violations. A close inspection of the situation reveals the fact that many international clothing companies had work going on in the building.  In the search for a solution to this devastating situation an attempt is currently underway to put in place some controls so that this type of disaster does not happen again.

One such control would be the binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh which has been signed by global unions, by more than 80 fashion brands from 15 countries (H&M, Zara, C&A, Tesco, Abercrombie and Fitch and Primark to name but a few) [3] and by NGOs. The Accord provides full transparency and assurance through a legally binding process, with commitments to inspect and improve garment factories. The Accord also gives workers the right to refuse to enter unsafe buildings where there is a reasonable justification that they are unsafe- a very important stipulation bearing in mind the terrible case of the workers in the Rana Plaza disaster.

According to UNI Global Union [4] “All reports of factory inspections will be made available to worker representatives and they will be notified right away of any imminent safety threats. All factory reports will be made public in a timely fashion and there is on-going public reporting on whether factories are being renovated”. The interesting aspect of the Accord is its binding aspect which sets it apart from other prior CSR programs in Bangladesh.  According to Kevin Thomas from the Maquila Solidarity Network writing in the Huffington Post [5] the real issue here is accountability and the Accord has a dispute resolution system that ensures this.

Gap and Wal-Mart have refused to sign this binding accord.

Walmart and Gap and other North American retailers have designed and launched their own scheme, a five-year factory safety plan for Bangladesh, which they have labeled the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

According to UNI Global Union [6] this does not go far enough as under this scheme factory reports will only be made available where there are plans to remediate. According to Michael Bride [7] “The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, on the other hand, states that the brands and retailers are responsible for the necessary repairs and remediation, whereas the Walmart/Gap plan does not.  This ensures that the economics of the relationship between buyer and manufacturer make it possible under the Accord for the repairs to be paid for.”

Now coming back to my initial question as to whether lawyers are an obstacle to progress on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability – it is my belief that we have to think about the education and understanding of legal practitioners when it comes to responsible business concerns, such as this one.  This may require a lot of reflection and understanding about the difference between compliance with minimum standards, legal or not, and the organized prevention of future disasters and protection of corporate reputation.

Is it time for lawyers to begin to think about the intersection between law and business practices? It is my opinion that lawyers may look at Corporate Social Responsibility and legal obligations in a vacuum.  What weight does an organization’s Corporate Responsibility policy have if the procurement decisions in a company are made by people who only base their decisions on price with no thought given to the health and safety issues of their workers in their supply chain?

Where do law students learn about issues that are considered to be non-legal? How many law schools have courses in their core program offerings which deal with Business and Human Rights, with Sustainability or with CSR? How many law schools insist on their law students doing an internship within a company setting in order that they might understand other non-legal disciplines and points of view?

My Big Question: How can we educate lawyers to go beyond pure narrow legal thinking and compliance solutions and lead them towards real risk management in an ever evolving global workplace?

Your ideas and comments are very welcome!

[2] Michael T. Bride, Deputy Organizing Director for Global Strategies, UFCW International Union
[4] UNI Global Union is the voice of 20 million service sector workers around the world. Through 900 affiliated unions, UNI represents workers in 150 countries and in every region of the world. UNI represents workers in the Cleaning & Security; Commerce; Finance; Gaming; Graphical & Packaging; Hair & Beauty; ICTS; Media, Entertainment & Arts; Post & Logistics; Social Insurance; Sport; Temp & Agency Workers and Tourism industries.
[5] Real Issue is Accountability
[7] Michael T. Bride, Deputy Organizing Director for Global Strategies, UFCW International Union

Mary Mayenfisch

Lawyer with substantial experience in private practice with corporate in-house capacity. Can provide legal support in English or French. Focuses on Business and Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility issues and has expertise in issues relating to Hospitality and Tourism Law. Irish lawyer Common law system knowledgable in matters relating to Succession law, contract law and contract drafting. Advises on acquisition and sale of property and related issues. Formerly worked as Law Professor at the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne lecturing in Hospitality and Business Law. As Director of the Pepperdine University program in Lausanne, she established the campus in Switzerland in 2006. Experienced in matters of education, works in the area of student counselling, stakeholder relations and outreach, organisation of internships. Specialist in the area of Business and Human Rights, she has worked, lobbied and lectured in this area since 2005. She is currently responsible for Stakeholder Relations and Student Counselling at Business School Lausanne (BSL).

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