The construction sector and human rights are inseparable

The construction sector and human rights are inseparable

“My life here is like a prison. The work is difficult; we worked for many hours without rest in the hot sun. When I first complained about my situation, soon after arriving in Qatar, the manager said ‘if you complain you can, but there will be consequences. If you want to stay in Qatar be quiet and keep working’. Now I am forced to stay in Qatar and continue working.” – Deepak, a metalworker on Khalifa International Stadium, a Fifa 2022 World Cup venue, speaking to Amnesty International.

The Deepak story sent shivers down my spine; I was numb, actually dumbfounded. I didn’t realise there were still construction companies that treated their employees in a slavery manner. With a bit of research, I have almost had a cardiac arrest to find out that even back home in South Africa, and Africa as a whole, Deepak’s story was not peculiar at all.

It also made me question, as a business person, how we operate our businesses vis-a-vis human rights and labour standards. I then decided to pen down this article about the importance of the proposed International Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights in my industry, the construction sector and its supply chain.

However, I am optimistic that it will impact the wider spectrum.  My colleagues always ask why I like writing about human rights. The answer, without batting an eye, is co-relation. The construction sector and human rights are inseparable.

A little bit of background brings us back to 20 June 2014. It was when South Africa and Ecuador helped table a resolution at the 26th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The resolution, which was supported by 20 countries in a vote, directs “to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an international legally binding treaty on Transnational Corporations and Other business enterprises with respect to human rights.”

Fast forward to June 2018; the Treaty is still being negotiated. Recently over 200 organisations penned a letter to the UN requesting member states to speed up the negotiating process. The construction sector and its supply chain are poised to benefit heavily from the Treaty if vetoed for.

One might wonder how the Business and human rights came about. In the wake of major abuses in the recent decade, civil society has increasingly called companies to be held to human rights standards.

The construction industry and its supply chain have been accused of human rights abuses as evidenced by the HKH general construction allegations of non-wage payment; exploitation of construction workers in the UK; the collapsing of buildings showing company negligence in Kenya and Durban, South Africa; and the abuse of migrant construction workers in Qatar and Russia, to name but a few. The allegations are a cause for concern for the sector hence the need for the Binding Treaty to help companies operationalise human rights.

In the past, construction companies tended to approach social issues through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. However, many CSR initiatives are undertaken selectively based on what the company voluntarily chooses to address.

A Human Rights approach requires companies to respect all human rights; they do not have the option of picking and choosing to deal with those issues with which they feel comfortable. A human right fit for the construction industry, which is advocated in the proposed Binding Treaty, provides a universally recognised, people-centred approach to companies’ social and environmental impacts.

Most construction companies worldwide have joined together, in some cases with governments, international organisations and or NGOs, in voluntary initiatives to address since human rights issues.

An increasing number of construction companies are taking positive steps to promote human rights. However, some companies historically maintained that human rights standards were only applicable to governments, not the private sector. They claimed that their sole obligation was to respect national laws, even where those laws failed to meet international human rights standards.

Conclusively, construction companies are the guardians of human rights in their operations. There is a need for more inclusivity and unity. The binding Treaty can be a reality if only we work together.


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