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Introducing Business and Human Rights at HEC Paris

Thirty-four students have just completed a dedicated course on Business and Human Rights at HEC Paris. Prior to entering an ever more complex labour market, they had the opportunity to take a deep dive into some of the most pressing human and labour rights challenges and discuss how to reconcile business imperatives and respect of fundamental rights.

On Sunday 15 May 2022, 4,000 delegates from around the globe will gather in Durban, South Africa for the 5thGlobal Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour. Anousheh Karvar, the chair of the Alliance 8.7 – the global alliance to eliminate child labour, forced labour and human trafficking – will be among them. Seven weeks earlier, she stood in front of HEC students for the first lecture of a new elective course entitled Business and Human Rights (#BHR).

During the three-hour lesson, Anousheh Karvar introduced the dire situation of contemporary child labour, sharing some of the figures and trends from the 2020 global estimates. Currently 160 million children aged 5-17 are estimated to be in child labour and progress in reducing child labour has stalled and is at risk of being reversed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Without concerted efforts and the active participation of the business community, progress towards the elimination of child labour is impossible. 

As they learned about this reality, students admitted being unfamiliar with the topic and, for most of them, being surprised at the magnitude of a problem they considered much less important. During this same lesson, they also learned about the difficulty for survivors of child labour to hold companies accountable for the mistreatment they have endured. They were given the opportunity to discuss the case of three Malian children, trafficked to work in Cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, who have been litigating unsuccessfully for fifteen years against Nestlé, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, in the US federal court system.

None of the students in the course had any prior experience studying #BHR and two-thirds of them had never heard of the concept of #BHR prior to enrolling in this course. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that the introduction of #BHR in business education is still quite recent. Without formal knowledge of #BHR, students had however expressed strong motivation to follow the course and were familiar, as citizens, newsreaders, or consumers, with a number of #BHR issues. The diversity of their origins – roughly half of the class was composed of exchange students coming from Asian, European, African and American universities – also increased the possibility to discuss examples from different geographies.

Harnessing this opportunity, different guest speakers participated – in person or remotely – to share their expertise and guide students through the multiple layers of contemporary #BHR challenges. With the help of Alix Nasri and Maria Gallotti, technical specialists at the International Labour Organization, students learned about the harsh reality of recruitment practices for low-paid workers in the Middle East and Central America. They learned about efforts made to reduce forced labour in the fishing industry as well as the international legal framework governing private employment agencies. 

Through case studies, practical testimonies and readings, students discovered the great number of tensions – legal, economic, strategic, reputational, among others – which businesses must square in their daily operations. Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, a respected figure in the field of #BHR, presented her research on issues such as sustainable fashion and cobalt mining. She also shared her engagement over the past years to professionalize and strengthen the field of #BHR in business education, notably through her participation in the establishment of two business and human rights centres in business schools at New York University and the Geneva School of Economics and Management.

As weeks passed, news from around the globe resonated strongly with the content of the course. The debate around the upcoming EU-legislation on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence, the sentencing of executives of a food delivery company for misclassifying platform workers, or the decision by Harvard University to redress its ties with slavery all gave way to passionate discussions. They also provided concrete opportunities to study important elements of the theoretical #BHR framework and notably the United Nations Guiding Principles on #BHR and the associated three pillars: protect, respect, and remedy.

Guest lecturers working in sustainable investment – Benjamin Michel (OECD), Sabrina Ritossa Fernandez (Sycomore AM) and Claire Berthier (HEC 2008, Trusteam) – presented students with some of the most complex human rights dilemmas, those related to war. Should financial organizations ask companies to leave countries accused of war crimes? Can weapon manufacturers be considered socially responsible investments? In small groups, students had to answer these quasi-philosophical questions and quickly understood that they had different views and that none could be presented as a categorical answer.

After weeks of navigating these difficult, and often dramatic issues, students were given the opportunity to look at #BHR through a different lens for the final lecture. Rajeev Dubey, a former executive of the Tata and Mahindra Groups, was invited to share with them the story of RISE, an inspiring initiative to transform the purpose of the Mahindra Group, one of India’s largest multinational federation of companies. This experience, which has since become a Harvard Business School case, is a concrete example of how the public good and human dignity can be integral elements of a company’s philosophy. And how this philosophy can coexist with growth and economic performance.

For the next few weeks, students will write an individual essay and have the possibility to connect what they have studied with their personal and professional interests. Some will continue for several years of business education while others will soon graduate and enter the labour market. Most probably, the new perspectives they have acquired during this course will be of use when taking decisions on human and labour rights-related issues. And hopefully, other students will be given the opportunity to walk in their footsteps and advance the continuous effort to uphold fundamental human rights for all.

The Business and Human Rights course at HEC Paris is taught by Charles Autheman. Charles Autheman is former HEC Paris and Sciences Po Paris alumnus and a member of GBSN for BHR. He works as a consultant for the International Labour Organization and other UN agencies on human rights and labour rights related issues.