The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) require that business know and show that they respect human rights. They can do so by conducting human rights due diligence and by translating and embedding human rights throughout their organization. This process requires that businesses engage with individuals and groups affected by their activities. And yet, the whole process has been criticised for being too top-down and lacking the strong participatory element of human rights-based approaches. Leaders and senior management are positioned at the helm of the organizational acculturation process of human rights responsibility in business. Although considered core targets of companies’ human rights policies, employees and workers tend to be held as passive recipients rather than active participants in this process. This ignores the role they play in the everyday (ethical) life of organizations and the fact that they live in and know the communities and societies surrounding operations. This matters for business and human rights (BHR) practice. If employees and workers are not involved in the process of defining rights issues, how can companies know and show that they respect human rights in and around their organizations? More to the point, we should be asking: how do vulnerable sections of the workforce, such as migrant workers, understand and engage with human rights?

Migrant workers and the UNGPs in times of austerity and pre-Brexit

To answer these questions, I set out to explore what human rights meant across organizational levels in the British hospitality sector after the UNGPs’ launch in 2011 and before the EU referendum in 2016.

The hospitality sector relies heavily on migrant workers, whom the UNGPs include as part of the vulnerable groups that require special attention from States and business. Looking back, the period was a case study for BHR in the context of heightened anti-immigration sentiment and economic austerity.

Migrant workers’ vulnerability partly derives from political and legal rules that create situations of inequality between them and citizens, and between foreign workers themselves, based on their perceived utility in the labour market. Among others, government policies that restrict freedom of movement and ability to freely choose and leave employment as well as those that limit access to welfare, compound this vulnerability. These engage Pillar 1 of the UNGPs, as States must ensure that laws and policies protect the rights of individuals, including migrant workers, and that they are coherent to enable companies to respect human rights.

Following the corporate responsibility to respect human rights (UNGPs Pillar 2) would require that companies address the discriminatory social attitudes that pervade the workplace and lead to stereotyping and segmentation of the workforce based on perceived work ethic. All these dynamics and practices are common in the British hospitality sector. Between 2011 and 2015, at the time of research, austerity was also the driving motto. It exacerbated the urge to cut costs and led to increased reliance on outsourcing labour and zero-hours contracts in the sector to meet the sector’s on-demand labour needs. Such practices displace responsibility onto recruitment agencies or individual workers themselves and are known to amplify socio-economic precarity. In such a context, how did migrant workers understand human rights and how did/could they use them?

The need for an inclusive human rights methodology

With its denotative legalistic frame of reference, the BHR methodological toolbox is limited for investigation into the translation and meaning of human rights in business. Rights-talk, a common concept in legal anthropology and socio-legal studies, also used in business ethics, provides the necessary inclusive lens. Scholars such as Richard A. Wilson have demonstrated that rights-talk invites us to listen to and investigate ‘how people speak about those [human rights] norms, or aspire to expand or interpret them in new ways’. Using rights-talk as an analytical tool thus enables research into the connotative articulations of human rights that are closer to people’s everyday experience.

In the field of BHR, it calls out attention to two key issues, agency and structures. That is, firstly, the way migrant workers and other vulnerable groups use rights-talk to assert their expectations, raise concerns, seek remedy and claim their rights. Secondly, to the various legal, political, social and organizational factors (structures) that can shape individuals’ awareness of human rights and their ability to use them.

Migrant workers’ rights-talk in the British hospitality sector

Exploring migrant workers’ rights-talk is insightful about the meaningfulness of human rights in the British hospitality industry. It also raises important questions with regards to power and knowledge of human rights which have deep implications for BHR in contexts of heightened anti-immigration sentiments and policies. Here are three takeaways from the article that invite further research:

Participants used rights-talk aware of its emancipatory promise

Rights-talk can help individuals challenge existing assumptions about power and relationships as they come to see and define as harms and possible rights-claims what may otherwise be considered a normal situation in the context in which they live and work. Human rights notions including inequality, dignity, respect, discrimination, and democracy may be invoked to describe and expose the adverse impacts of pervasive inequality in both work and social relationships.

Thus, creating spaces where employees’ rights-talk and local knowledge are recognized and translated-up could provide a useful reflexive lens in organizations in contexts where legal standards are weak or undercut migrant workers’ rights. Including such knowledge could lead to deep changes in organizational practices, contractual arrangements, individual conduct, and the company’s culture. For example, ensuring that all organizational actors are treated as equal, with respect, dignity and care, regardless of the minimum required for legal compliance.

Participants lacked confidence to use legal rights-talk

Migrant workers, however, may be unaware of and unfamiliar with formal legal rights-talk including human rights rules and regulations and relevant policies in their company, where available. The lack of knowledge of legal human rights among migrant employees indicates an obvious limit in their ability to call on rights-talk’s denotative power to see their rights-claims translated-up, legitimized and remedied under specific rules.

This highlights migrant workers’ needs for rights education and for the support of union representatives, human rights advocates or lawyers. This is especially important in sectors such as the hospitality industry, where unionization is low and migrant workers are poorly represented.

Social and organizational barriers to rights-talk

Several disincentives appeared to inhibit the development of human rights consciousness and related action among the participants. The protection that different categories of workers and migrants enjoy in society and at work may be undercut by legal and immigration policy restrictions of civic, employment, and other social rights. These restrictions also often undermine individuals’ capacity to articulate their concerns and be heard. Some categories of workers and migrants may thus be positioned, and relatedly come to see themselves, as individuals lacking civic virtue and moral status, who are less deserving of the rights they can claim in society and in the workplace.

This is especially critical in times of rising anti-immigration attitudes and policies that further curtail the rights of migrant workers. In such settings, migrant workers may feel that their options are limited, that their claims are not legitimate and will not be considered. Knowing and showing that they respect human rights in such contexts demands heightened due diligence from companies and management. This entails openness and ability to hear and respond to claims that may not be framed in formal human rights-talk. It also requires that companies and management go beyond respect and take a stand to protect the rights and dignity of migrant workers by treating them equally and fairly. Yet again, this requires that not only employees and workers but also management are educated on human rights and have the space and courage to take a moral stand that could challenge organizational priorities.

Rights-talk in business going forward

These insights point to the emancipatory meaning of rights-talk for migrant workers and their ability to engage with human rights. But they also highlight significant social and organizational barriers that in the climate of austerity preceding Brexit appeared to hinder the emergence of right-consciousness and individuals’ capacity to claim their rights and seek remedy in a foreign country where they did not necessarily feel ‘rightfully’ welcome.

It is a great personal honour that my article was awarded the Business and Human Rights Journal’s 2019 Best Scholarly Article Award. This signals the need for further research into the dynamic meaning and role of human rights in business from the perspectives of all organizational actors. It also calls for on-going research into the responsibility of business for migrant workers in changing contexts where their rights and freedoms are increasingly curtailed.

GOETHALS, S. (2019). Exploring Migrant Employees’ ‘Rights-Talk’ in the British Hospitality Sector. Business and Human Rights Journal, 4(2), 287-315. doi:10.1017/bhj.2019.4

Samentha GoethalsSamentha Goethals, Professor of Business & Society, RISE² Research Centre, SKEMA Business School - University Côte d'Azur, France

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