IHRB - 2024 Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues: New Frontiers (December, 2023)

Anna Triponel

December 15, 2023
Our key takeaway: IHRB's forecast of priority human rights for businesses in 2024 offers a forward-looking perspective. It considers human rights impacts in the “small places close to home,” as Eleanor Roosevelt put it in 1958 – such as farms, offices, factories and cities – but also farther and wider spaces, such as the online world, space, and oceans, where human rights and nature impacts will continue to grow in coming decades. (1) For farms, safeguarding the rights of agricultural workers and smallholder farmers (i.e., income, safety and livelihoods) amid the challenges posed by climate change and automation is seen as the key priority. (2) In factories, businesses are called to embrace collective empowerment and new partnerships between workers and employers, as technology reshapes the factory floor. (3) In offices, businesses will need to respond to employee desires for greater flexibility and wellbeing, and address equity and mental health concerns. (4) Online, respecting rights will require balancing free expression with the urgent need to combat hate speech and disinformation. (5) In mines, as well as in other infrastructure projects emerging in the development of a green economy, companies are being called on to learn from past mistakes and maximise the social benefits of the green rush for transition minerals. (6) Oceans are framed as a spaces for ensuring that rights protections and shared prosperity are at the heart of a sustainable blue economy. (7) Space is described as a frontier that demands establishing standards and accountability for emerging industries working beyond Earth’s atmosphere. (8) Cities are understood to be growing spaces where smart, green, inclusive, and equitable infrastructure will be needed. (9) Borders are expected to see growing migration, and we are called to build on its benefits while protecting migrant worker rights. And (10) the natural world, the space of life, increasingly demands the development of business strategies that halt and reverse nature loss and its associated human rights impacts. The selection of these ten spaces as the new frontiers for human rights issues for business activities underscores how important it is for companies to integrate sustainability, climate, environmental and human rights considerations into core business strategies. The complexity and diversity of the challenges ahead also shows why companies will need to embrace a holistic approach to business practices, aligning human rights due diligence, technical developments and environmental sustainability, for business, people and nature to thrive in coming years.

Ten places and new frontiers to watch for responsible business practices, according to IHRB’s “2024 Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues: New Frontiers”:

  1. Farms. In the agricultural sector, the focus for 2024 and coming years will be on safeguarding the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and protecting agricultural workers in the face of evolving changes in food and materials’ production. With climate change exacerbating existing vulnerabilities, ensuring farmers earn a liveable income, addressing heat stress, reducing precarious employment, and mitigating the impact of extreme weather events and automation are key concerns. Addressing these challenges will require tackling heat stress risks, safeguarding land tenure rights, implementing localised interventions tailored to specific contexts, promoting meaningful worker and community engagement, investing in education and training for automation, and establishing collaborative governance structures involving policymakers, industry leaders, financial institutions, and farmers.
  2. Factories. The manufacturing industry is undergoing a transformation through the adoption of new technologies and automation, which presents both persistent and new human rights risks. Some of the persisting risks include dangerous working conditions, low wages, inadequate worker representation, and gender-based violence. Emerging ones include job loss, increased worker surveillance, loss of privacy, and worker mistreatment due to automation and artificial intelligence. To address these challenges, companies will need comprehensive policies and processes that ensure that technological advances lead to empowering workers instead of exploiting them. Prioritising worker safety, living wages, skill development, sufficient time off, and the right to organise are also vital. Developing new partnerships between workers and employers may by fundamental to prevent negative impacts on people and promote positive social impacts.
  3. Offices. The shift towards flexible work arrangements and the gig economy is reshaping the workplace. However, this change brings about unique challenges concerning worker safety, particularly for remote workers, where impacts such as those linked to domestic violence and mental health issues are on the rise. Moreover, changes in work environments may exacerbate existing inequalities and weaken the compliance with labour protections. To adapt to these evolving risks and demands, while also respecting workers' rights, some companies are adopting structures that empower workers with greater participation and decision-making power, such as cooperative structures and B-Corp models. These and other business models may address persistent and emerging workplace challenges while fostering equity and employee well-being.
  4. Online. The proliferation of online platforms and communication tools has given rise to human rights risks related to disinformation and online harassment. Tech service providers have mostly relied on self-regulation so far, but often fall short in mitigating risks to users and vulnerable communities. Disinformation and risks driven by AI like deep fakes will be of significant concern, especially in areas of conflict. Various governance bodies, including the UN, the European Union, and the United States, have proposed regulatory frameworks like the EU Artificial Intelligence Act and the AI Bill of Rights. The years ahead, particularly 2024, will be key for embedding human rights considerations into emerging regulations and company policies and practices.
  5. Mines and Infrastructure. As mining for transition minerals needed for the green economy grows, companies are being invited to learn from the risks and lessons learned in traditional mining and large infrastructure projects, when it comes to human rights risks. Risks like disregarding free and prior informed consent, violence and harassment, forced relocations, and abuses by security forces will likely come up in new mining activities as well. The tools and due diligence strategies used by traditional mining and fossil fuel companies to address these risks also remain relevant and should be integrated to mitigate human rights risks associated with green economy mining projects, as well as green energy projects such as solar and wind farms. Neglecting lessons learned could harm both the environment and people, and delay progress toward a net-zero future.
  6. Oceans. Oceans plays a vital role in supporting human livelihoods, sequestering carbon, regulating temperatures, and maintaining biodiversity. However, they face numerous threats from human activity, including pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction, and global warming. Companies are now asked to prioritise addressing impacts on oceans and coastal communities. And, for those involved in the "blue economy," they are also asked to consider the well-being of coastal communities and ocean industry workers, including shipyard workers, seafarers, fishers, and indigenous coastal communities, as they develop new business strategies.
  7. Space. As space becomes an expanding frontier for business, establishing standards and accountability measures is essential to address emerging risks to both people and the environment. For instance, increasing reliance on satellites for essential services like communication and navigation introduces potential risks to astronauts and communities on Earth. In response to these risks, responsible deployment and maintenance of satellites will be necessary. The 2024 UN Summit of the Future will address these and other key issues, including preventing a space arms race, space traffic management, and debris removal.
  8. Cities. Urban population is expected to grow from 50% to 68% by 2050. In an increasingly urbanised world, cities face the task of developing infrastructure that is green, inclusive, and equitable. Growing demands on healthcare, transport, sanitation and education will be some of the upcoming challenges; as will be ensuring access to affordable housing and transportation, while respecting individual and community rights and the environment.
  9. Borders. Migration is on the rise due to armed conflicts, natural disasters, economic stress, poverty, inequality and – most recently – climate change. As more people move across borders and the working population decreases in some countries (i.e., due to aging and low birth rates), companies will increasingly need to rely on migrant workers. Advocacy efforts in the years ahead should emphasise well-designed migration policies that enhance prosperity for all. Special attention should be given to legal frameworks for refugees, as their numbers may reach 1.2 billion by 2050 due to the increase of climate refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
  10. Natural World. Businesses must develop strategies to halt and reverse nature loss while considering the associated human rights impacts. Environmental factors, such as air and water pollution and chemical exposure, already contribute to 24% of global annual deaths according to the WHO, and the number is likely to grow. Additionally, 85% of the world's largest companies significantly rely on natural resources according to S+P Global – which shows that addressing nature-related risks is also an opportunity for businesses. Sustainable business practices should prioritise the restoration of ecosystems, such as soil, water sources, and habitats. Nature-based solutions (NbS) offer a way forward and may provide direct economic benefits for communities, but should be developed collaboratively, taking into account Indigenous and human rights.

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