Tomorrow, on Human Rights Day 2022, the world commemorates the United Nations (UN) General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.
It’s an historic milestone, and the declaration — available in 500 languages — has since become the most translated document in the world.
Why is this relevant now, more than 70 years later? Because human rights are still constantly questioned, undermined, and violated by many different actors, including companies. We still have a long way to go to address discrimination, forced and child labor, unsafe working conditions, unfair pay, and further human rights abuses in today’s economy.
According to a recent International Labour Organization (ILO) report, 27.6 million people around the world were in conditions of forced labor in 2021, 11% more than 2016. Twelve percent of all those in forced labor are children. As a father of three, such a number touches me deeply and makes me outraged.
It is also beyond saddening that annually more than 2.78 million deaths result from occupational accidents or work-related diseases. Every single day, 7,500 people on average die from unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. Additionally, there are some 374 million non-fatal work-related injuries each year, as the ILO estimated before the pandemic.
These could be largely prevented if businesses would live up to their responsibility to respect human rights as laid out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Yet too many are still failing to do so. While reporting on human rights due diligence increased from once percent in 2010 to 18% in 2020, and human rights policies from eight percent in 2010 to 38% in 2020, that is by far not enough. In response, governments are continuing to expand mandatory human rights due diligence legislation and are backed by a growing number of investors and companies that are taking human rights seriously.
As I laid out last year for Human Rights Day, making human rights a priority might therefore be an obvious necessity for business. However, how to make it real and integrate human rights as part of your holistic corporate sustainability journey is not a trivial thing. As John Ruggie, former Special Representative for Business and Human Rights to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, underlined:
“No company that I know of has ever said, ‘We don’t respect human rights.’ My question was: how do you know that you respect human rights? And can you show that you do? Do you have systems in place that would allow you to back that claim?”
Finding the answers can seem overwhelming — especially when it comes to addressing the more complex challenge of human rights due diligence across your company’s entire value chain — beyond your own operations. But this should not keep you from embarking on this endeavor.
During the past year, we have learned a lot in our interdisciplinary human rights due diligence project that we established at SAP to take our existing human rights commitment statement, governance, disclosure, and processes to the next level and prepare for compliance with legal requirements from, for example, the UK/AUS modern slavery acts, German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act (LkSG), or the upcoming EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive. We identified gaps in our policies and procedures, which we have been working to close.
Among others, we piloted new concepts for identifying human rights risks across our own operations and our supply chain. This went hand in hand with collaboratively evolving the focus from primarily looking at risks to SAP’s business to equally including risks to people. This is not an unknown challenge in the business and human rights space, but was still a learning experience for our teams across SAP when putting it into practice.
For the first time, we also used impact measurement and valuation to assess our performance on selected human rights. As a founding member of the Value Balancing Alliance (VBA), we applied the living wage methodology co-developed within the VBA. This helped us find few employees in SAP Brazil whose compensation had to be adjusted to meet our ambition of ensuring quality of life measured through VBA’s living wage methodology.
At the same time, we continued to expand our offering to support our customers’ human rights and social responsibility ambitions. For example, SAP Ariba solutions now further enhance supplier risk management and supply chain transparency through network-enabled collaboration. The data and insights support them in detecting and eradicating forced and child labor or achieving compliance as required by the German LkSG. The SAP Environment, Health, and Safety application additionally helps to proactively identify, analyze, and mitigate environment, health, and safety risks and to make operations safer.
Being conscious not only of the opportunities for positive impact through our solutions, but also potential risks linked to our technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), we further operationalized our guiding principles for AI by deploying our internal AI ethics policy in the first half of 2022, establishing an AI Ethics Office and maturing our review approach of high-risk AI use cases with support of external experts from our AI Ethics Advisory Panel.
There is still a lot for us to learn and improve on. Along the way, it’s important that we as business leaders do not get consumed by navigating the regulatory landscape and ensuring compliance, thereby losing sight of the aim to improve peoples’ lives.
Let’s not allow this to become a check-box exercise and sincerely #StandUp4HumanRights.
Daniel Schmid is chief sustainability officer of SAP SE.