China business or human rights? Hong Kong protests leave Cathay facing a tough balancing act
- 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
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.
The responsibility under the guiding principles is over and above any responsibility that companies may have under domestic laws. The UN Human Rights Council is also currently negotiating a treaty to add “legal teeth” to this responsibility.
Moreover, both Cathay and Swire issued separate statements, which included the following: “We resolutely support the Hong Kong SAR government, the chief executive and the police in their efforts to restore law and order. We condemn all illegal activities and violent behaviour, which seriously undermine the fundamental principle of one country, two systems as enshrined in the Basic Law.”
Cathay’s decision in the first situation would be justified and in line with its responsibility to protect the privacy of its customers, as long as due process was followed and the disciplinary action was proportional to the alleged wrong conduct.
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.
In fact, Cathay should encourage its employees to utilise office space and property to promote human rights values.
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