Since its beginning two years ago, the Center for Business and Human Rights (CBHR) at New York University's Stern School of Business has been at the forefront of advancing the cause of human rights in business. The center, the first of its kind at a business school, believes that human rights are not merely related or complimentary to good business practice; but a central pillar upon which progress and profit is advanced.
In a time of globalization and world affairs where increasingly our understanding of human rights and universal values is begin reexamined and reshaped, it is crucial that the leaders of tomorrow are ones who understand both the best way to practice business, and the best way to build the lives and opportunity of those in the wider community. Due to the increasing influence of corporate actors internationally and nationally, human rights abuses in business have arisen especially in the developing world. The CBHR is leading the charge in this area seeking to ensure basic working conditions all the way to business practices more respectful of free expression and individual privacy in the digital world.
The NYU Stern's Center of Business and Human Rights is led by co-directors, Research Scholar Sarah Labowitz and Professor Michael Posner, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The representation of these figures from this field within a business school is rare and exceptional. Yet, this is just the beginning. Though only two years old, the CBHR has already helped grow substantive initiatives internationally, and with it sought to establish ongoing links with NYU Stern. This has been seen in the Center's work throughout the developing region, with works in Bangladesh.
In April 2013, more than 1100 workers, who were manufacturing clothes for some Western brands and apparel retailers in appalling working conditions, were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh. The tragedy raised questions about safety and working conditions in the garment industry and the responsibility of local manufacturers and global firms to protect the rights of workers in their supply chains. A set of global standard of expected conduct for all business enterprises wherever they operate was established by United Nations in 2011 stating that states must protect human rights against harm by business enterprises within their territory. Under these Guiding Principles(1), companies should also act responsibly to respect their employees by avoiding infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved. The disaster was a wake-up call for action by governments and stakeholders to prevent such accidents from taking place.
Through two initiatives, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety(2), and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety(3), corporations accepted to take steps to strengthen inspections of working conditions in 1800 factories that are their direct suppliers. One year later, the CBHR has published a report "Business as Usual is Not an Option" that describes in details the garment sector in Bangladesh. However, after the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza on April 24, 2015, too few have been done to ensure worker safety. Incidents are still happening and too many factories are reluctant to finance costly upgrades to prevent future worker injuries and deaths. Over the last year, CBHR has combined five publicly available factory databases to better estimate the size of the industry. The analysis has identified 6,830 factories and suggests that the industry is much more larger than the best estimates that put the number of factories between 5,000 and 6,000.
Along the way, the Center has looked to create a safe space for discussion on the world's most pressing problems by bringing together companies, experts and stakeholders at NYU Stern. While few business schools offer courses in responsible business in their programs, NYU Stern has made human rights issues an integral part of business education.
Posner teaches the "Law, Business & Human Rights" elective course to NYU Stern MBA students and a senior seminar in the Business and Political Economy undergraduate program. The Professional Responsibility course is even incorporated in the core curriculum of the full-time MBA and the Langone MBA. With the belief that profit and principle can co-exist, the Center intends to raise awareness among NYU Stern students on the importance of considering human rights issues in the workplace.