Companies are responsible for tackling discrimination against LGBTI people, says UN report

Aarefa Johari

Governments have the primary responsibility to uphold the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, but the onus is also on businesses and companies across the world to tackle discrimination against them. This is the thrust of a new United Nations report laying down standards of conduct for all businesses to help them deal with discrimination against LGBTI employees.

The report, which was released in Mumbai on Thursday, has been published by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Institute for Human Rights and Business, an international think tank headquartered in London.

The report’s premise is that just as companies are liable to comply with health, safety, environment and minimum wage standards, they also have the responsibility of upholding human rights for all, regardless of the size, structure or location of the business, and regardless of any perceived or actual economic costs or benefits.

The UN report also quotes various global studies to point out that companies that are more diverse and inclusive tend to perform better in business. Conversely, discrimination against specific groups of people can slow down economic growth. In India, for instance, a 2015 World Bank study found that discrimination against the LGBT community cost the country up to 1.7% in gross domestic product, which amounts to around $32 billion, owing to lower economic output because of discrimination.

“Many companies are aware that discrimination is bad for business – they want to attract the best talent, reach the widest markets and be seen as fair employers and members of societies in which they operate,” said Salil Tripathi, the senior advisor for global issues at the Institute for Human Rights and Business and one of the chief authors of the UN report.

Despite this, when it comes to employment policies, only 67 of the UN’s 193 member countries ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, just 20 ban discrimination based on gender identity and only three ban discrimination against intersex persons, according to the report.

In this context, the UN report lays down five basic standards of conduct that give practical guidance to companies on how to protect the rights of LGBTI people at the workplace, in the industry as a whole and the community at large.

Standards within the workplace

The fundamental standard of conduct, according to the report, is respecting human rights at all times. For companies, this would mean developing policies and conducting due diligence to “identify, prevent and mitigate” any negative impact on the rights of LGBTI employees, and actively remedying situations in which their rights are impacted. The report also suggests setting up a grievance mechanism to address concerns of LGBTI employees and whistleblowers.

The second standard is eliminating discrimination at the workplace by, referencing non-discrimination policies in vacancy announcements (wherever it is legally feasible), for instance, and not forcing LGBTI staff to reveal or conceal their identity. “It also means having policies against bullying, harassment or discrimination, as well as enabling LGBTI people to feel part of the workforce, so that they bring their whole selves to the job, and don’t feel compelled to hide their identity,” said Tripathi.

Eliminating discrimination also includes extending equal benefits to the families of LGBTI employees and ensuring their safety during work-related travel. This would mean that if an LGBTI employee decides not to take up a transfer to a country where they could be discriminated against, they should not be penalised for it.

The report notes that transgender and intersex persons are particularly vulnerable to discrimination. Often, they are not hired to begin with. “If they are hired, and if they wish to make transition [from one gender to another], many companies have no idea what to do in such a situation,” said Tripathi. The report recommends that companies should respect the names, pronouns and gender used by transgender and intersex people, and should try to offer insurance policies to cover surgeries and other support they may need.

Providing a supportive environment for LGBTI staff, through proactive and visible measures, is the third standard of conduct listed in the UN report.

Standards beyond the workplace

The report emphasises that businesses can play an influential and positive role in raising standards for upholding LGBTI rights even beyond their immediate workplaces.

To this end, the fourth standard of conduct listed in the report is about preventing human rights violations in the marketplace, when a company deals with its partners, suppliers and other stakeholders within the industry. This involves assessing whether the company is contributing to violence, bullying or ill-treatment of LGBTI people through its business relations, using its influence to prevent abuses among partners and industry stakeholders and wherever possible, taking public advocacy positions.

The final standard of conduct for businesses is to act in the public sphere, by sponsoring and consulting with local LGBTI rights organisations, working with them to challenge discriminatory laws and practices and questioning and resisting the implementation of discriminatory government orders.

As an example, the UN report lists a number of Indian companies and brands, such as Godrej, Intuit and Tanishq, who have taken a public stand against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises same-sex relationships.

Tripathi believes that Indian businesses could also be influential in altering the Indian government’s current stand on homosexuality. “Indian companies do have a lot of power,” he said. “Many have got tax laws, labour laws, investment laws, and other business procedures that harm their business, changed – by lobbying and by articulating the case for simpler rules and lower taxes. There may indeed be other companies which are more tradition-bound and who may not be forthcoming. Our hope is that this report will spur them into action, as well as the fact that companies already implementing these standards will use their leverage to help bring about change.”

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