Taking care of business

  • 11 Feb 2014 13:00
It is no longer sufficient for mining companies simply to operate within a region
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Instead, they need to be welcomed and viewed as responsible partners and contributors to the sustainable development of the community.

As resources become scarcer and mining activities move into new territories, obtaining a social licence to operate has become increasingly important. At the heart of this social licence must be an adherence to, and promotion of, human rights – from the right to non-discrimination, to the right to clean drinking water and sanitation.

While most of us are fortunate enough to take these basic human rights for granted, many of the territories in which the mining industry now operates face situations of weak governance and conflict that can compromise the ability or will of governments to protect the human rights of their citizens.

In its annual ‘Freedom in the World’ report for 2014, Freedom House estimates that 41% of Sub-Saharan African countries are still categorised as ‘not free’, an increase of six percentage points since 2003.

The report also found that for the region as a whole, all seven categories of political rights and civil liberties have declined over the past five years. The results are even more alarming in the Middle East and North Africa, where the report rates 66% of countries as ‘not free’.

The industry needs to act and act quickly, because mining companies and their partners have an opportunity to set the standard in promoting the respect of human rights in some of the world’s most complex social and political environments, leveraging its significant footprint in many of these countries to effect positive change.

Progressive companies within the industry have acknowledged this and have begun to clearly define and communicate their respective positions on human rights.

G4S recently launched a human rights policy and guidance framework that sets out our expectations of managers and employees in upholding human rights standards.

The framework acknowledges that as a company we can contribute positively to the protection and promotion of human rights, however, it also recognises that we have a duty to ensure that we are not at risk of violating human rights through the services we provide, the customers and suppliers we work with and through our treatment of our employees and others who are in our care.

Similar principles are also reflected in a number of industry standards and frameworks. The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) asks companies to commit to 10 sustainable development principles, one of which is that companies should “uphold fundamental human rights and respect cultures, customs and values in dealings with employees and others who are affected by our activities”.

The Conflict-free Gold Standard (CFGS) also requires producers to “publicly commit to respecting human rights” and wherever possible to “seek to use their influence to prevent abuses being committed by others in the vicinity of their operations”.

Both bodies conduct annual assessments of their members in order to measure performance against their commitments.

G4S is also seeing customers and other stakeholders increasingly ask us to demonstrate specific actions and practices that are aligned to internationally accepted human rights standards, such as the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights, which is what its policy and framework is focused on.

It is encouraging that the industry has begun to recognise the importance of human rights by adopting well-publicised policies and principles, however, there is clearly more that must be done.

Mining companies are already having to consider what measures they will take to protect employees in countries where governments may not be meeting their own duties to respect and protect human rights, but the industry should go further than this and work together to build a consensus that recognises that the industry’s responsibility on human rights extends beyond its own employees.

As the CFGS emphasises, mining companies should use the considerable influence that they often wield in the countries they operate in to push for improved standards on human rights and governance, and a country’s human rights record should increasingly form part of the investment decision making process.

It is imperative that the industry begin to develop the business case for human rights, much like it has done for safety, in order to ensure that companies are able to mobilise internal support for measures to protect and promote human rights.

Companies should view this not just as an ethical issue, but as a critical business risk that needs to be actively managed.

The G4S framework includes the production of an annual ‘heat map’ that grades countries in terms of their human rights risks. This gives our managers an at-glance guide to potential problem areas or territories needing a greater human rights focus, and we tailor our activities and expertise accordingly.

The mining industry plays a unique role in many of the countries in which it operates, and in economically depressed regions is often the driving force of local economies.

It therefore has a responsibility to not only uphold human rights ourselves, but to ensure that it has a positive impact on the communities that host it. This will become even more important as the sector is forced to operate in increasingly complex social and political environments.

This article first appeared in the Mining Journal. To view the piece, please visit:

http://www.mining-journal.com/reports/social-licence-taking-care-of-business (registration required)