Mark Nordstrom – Business Voice

Mark Nordstrom, Senior Labor and Employment Counsel, General Electric Company

Policy commitment – Impacts across diverse businesses – Addressing all human rights -Customer-use

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We began this initiative back in around 2006 when it was clear to us that our growth patterns would place us in emerging markets where human rights are under pressure.  We hadn’t really focused on human rights up until that point and we decided that we needed to get up to speed in this area.  So we joined the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights – an organisation that helped us get up to speed quickly. 

In that context we guided our efforts towards creating a Statement of Principles on Human Rights.  Obviously the Guiding Principles that have recently been issued have in section 16 the obligation to have such a statement of principles, so we were ahead of the curve on that point.  But one of the concerns that we had in drafting the Statement of Principles on Human Rights was that we did not want to over-commit.  We have lots of different businesses, and working with the General Counsels at each of those businesses was a bit of a trial in terms of not wanting to over-commit, whilst at the same time addressing human rights and expressly stating that we supported the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. 

In order to assuage the concerns that some of the General Counsels had, we utilised a matrix wherein we placed the thirty-odd human rights that are referenced in the Universal Declaration along one axes and then looked at GE’s policies and programmes on another axes and determined where, if at all, there were some gaps.  It turned out that many of the policies, while not specifically addressed to human rights, covered human rights in a way that gave some comfort to the fact that we would not be over-committing by embracing the Statement of Principles on Human Rights.

As you know GE is a hugely diversified company and many of the businesses provoke different aspects of human rights – different salient issues.  For example, healthcare – the right to medical treatment and health would be implicated by its mere existence.  NBCU – the right to freedom of opinion and expression would be evoked in their operations.  Appliances – particularly as it relates to the supply chain in China, in India, in other jurisdictions would prompt questions around wages per hour, EHS, the ability to freely associate, and other typical labor rights issues.  Water and energy would naturally have the question of rights to access water as one of its concerns.  Our capital business, where we are often engaged in large infrastructure protect and utilise the Equator Principles, would prompt questions around the environment, indigenous peoples and the right to property and so forth. 

So it’s almost a natural given that with the diversity of our operations the need to think of all of the human rights at once, if you will, was set before us.  Now, obviously, in any particular business in operation they are not focussed on every human right because it would be too compounding, but what they do is focus on certain salient rights. I think that’s consistent with the Guiding Principles here because if you look at Principles 12 and 14 it notes that all business enterprises have an obligation to respect human rights.  But differences are acknowledged by reason of scale and complexity of the business and the extent to which the business may naturally come into play with certain salient human rights and populations. 

Any business anywhere might have an obligation to think about the rights of minorities, however minorities are going to be defined in a particular location.  Child labor and the rights of children are often evoked in the context of the apparel industry or agricultural industry so if you are in those industries you might have a special focus in that area.  For example, NBCU – you might not think of GE being involved in apparel, but NBCU has quite a bit of apparel in the T-shirts and hats and other sports wear that it sells in its New York stores.  Migrant workers tend to be victimised from a human rights perspective wherever they are.  You’re frequently going to find migrant workers in construction and mining operations.  One area, for example, where we’ve had some concerns about migrant workers is the right to be free from detention in the context of certain practices, where their passports had been collected by sub-contractors and withheld from them.  So as you can see there’s is a lot of possible flash points based on the business – based on the sector – based on the region of the world, and as a result of that we have to be sensitive again because of the diversity of all human rights. 

One of the more interesting situations we found ourselves in had to do with our healthcare business and one of its products – the ultrasound product.  Ultrasound is like a small x-ray.  It’s a terrific, small, easy, rather inexpensive way to diagnose injuries and diseases.  This is a great tool and it is of particular use in emerging markets where you don’t have the level of medical equipment that you might have, say, in the United States, these little ultrasound tools are terrific for diagnostic purposes.

The other thing that they can be used for, or I should say misused for, is to determine the sex of a child in the womb.  There are parts of the world where females are not as highly valued, if you will, as males in the context of how a culture operates.  So we found in around 2002 that in certain countries our ultrasound equipment was being misused to determine the gender of a foetus.  What we had here was a dilemma between the good use that ultrasound equipment can be put to in terms of diagnosing a disease and injury early, versus the horrible misuse of ultrasound equipment for the purposes of determining gender and of female infanticide. 

Obviously the easy answer would be just to withdraw from these jurisdictions where this misuse had occurred, but we didn’t want to do that because we likewise felt that the right to health was important and we sustained our products use in these areas.  So what we had to do was develop a due diligence routine, contractual terms, training and certification structures to allow for these ultrasound devices to be used for good purposes and not for bad.

Finally, I would say that the Guiding Principles have been very useful as serving one more marker on the pathway GE is following toward respecting human rights as it operates globally.  We say that we like to make money, we like to make it ethically and we like to make a difference.  The Guiding Principles’ focus on due diligence allow us to assure we do not harm others in their enjoyment of human rights and it helps each of our several diverse businesses assess their products and operations so that the latter two goals of operating ethically and making a difference can be achieved at the same time. The Guiding Principles have served to limit the corporate response that companies like GE faces as against the obligations that the states contribute to hold with respect to their duty to protect.

Case Study

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Extract revised for written version from audio file recorded in July 2012