- Doing business in China while respecting human rights is never easy for any company
- Cathay can overcome the challenges only if it explores ways to honour both the legitimate demands of Chinese authorities and its own responsibilities on rights
Similar questions have been raised about the responsibility of companies supplying tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds to Hong Kong Police, or of companies whose shopping malls protesters may enter and take shelter in.
It is now well established that companies have a responsibility to respect all human rights while doing business. In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which outline an authoritative framework for corporate human rights responsibility.
Since Swire, a company incorporated in the UK, is a shareholder of Cathay Pacific, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises would also apply here. To act in conformity with these guidelines, Swire should “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts and address such impacts when they occur”.
However, the dismissal of two pilots, who were previously suspended from duty, for protest-related incidents is problematic. The pilot charged for alleged rioting has not yet been convicted, and, even if convicted, this should not be equated with a typical crime.
The conduct of the other pilot hardly compromised passenger safety or harmed Cathay’s reputation. The termination, which appears to have been done to please Beijing and discourage other staff from supporting protests, would run counter to Cathay’s responsibility to respect the human rights of its employees.
If Cathay wishes to maintain neutrality amid the protests, it would make sense to ban the use of Cathay property to post non-work content, or to make unauthorised public announcements.
But, if Cathay and Swire should decide to condemn all illegal activities and violent behaviour which may threaten the Basic Law, then they should also condemn the Hong Kong SAR government, the chief executive and the police who are the root causes of these protests and have forgotten the “
two systems” limb of the “one country, two systems” principle.
In fact, Cathay should encourage its employees to utilise office space and property to promote human rights values.
To carry out its fourth decision, Cathay would have to monitor the after-hours personal life of employees and make value judgments in line with the Chinese authorities’ stand. In effect, this could leave Cathay open to charges of being an agent of the Chinese government, rather than operating within the parameters of the Basic Law and the UNGPs.
The challenges that Cathay faces could be overcome only if it explores ways to honour both the legitimate demands of Chinese authorities and its human rights responsibilities. Such an exploration should be done in consultation with all stakeholders, rather than blindly following Beijing’s dictates.
Doing business in China while also respecting human rights is never easy for any company. Cathay may not regard leaving the lucrative Chinese market as a viable option. But nor should it ditch its human rights responsibilities to make profits.
Surya Deva, an associate professor at City University’s School of Law, specialises in the area of business and human rights