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Setting up a Competence Area on Business and Human Rights

Five questions to Jörg Schmidt, Deputy Head of the Center for Corporate Responsibility and responsible for developing the competence focus on "Business and Human Rights" at the ZHAW School of Management and Law.

By focusing on business and human rights, the ZHAW School of Management and Law contributes to the achievement of SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. In the interview, Jörg Schmidt describes various related activities. (Image: ZHAW)

Dr. Schmidt, what is the motivation to study business-related human rights issues at the ZHAW School of Management and Law?

Companies exert a significant and diverse influence on people. First, they create jobs and therefore income for their employees. This happens in Switzerland, but also along the companies’ globalized value chains and supply chains abroad, such as in upstream production facilities or the extraction of raw materials. Here is where human rights issues such as low wages or child labor are an issue. When it comes to working conditions, the expectations of Swiss consumers are evident. They want companies to set clear targets and ensure they are followed. We currently see this in the debate about the political initiative concerning the responsibility of corporations. However, what tools are available to companies and, above all, how effective are they for local workers? The Center for Corporate Responsibility has been running courses on these topics for many years. We have acquired a lot of knowledge and can rely on useful contacts in companies as well as other protagonists. In Addition, an analysis of existing university and organizational centers of excellence carried out by us as part of the strategic initiative revealed that there are no players in Switzerland highlighting this issue primarily from an entrepreneurial-strategic angle. Therefore, it makes sense to work on the relationship between business and human rights from this perspective at the ZHAW School of Management and Law because here we can combine this with solid business management knowledge and proven practical orientation.

"Our aim is to integrate the topic of business and human rights in all four performance areas of the ZHAW School of Management and Law."

Dr. Jörg Schmidt, Center for Corporate Responsibility

We want the focus of competence to be particularly concerned with corporate social responsibility along global value chains and supply chains. Are some sectors of the economy more important than others in this context?

Not per se. All globally active or well-integrated companies face social challenges because of their complex supply chains. However, through existing contacts, the Center for Corporate Responsibility has been concentrating on specific business sectors, including the chocolate, gold, and textile industries. For one thing, these areas have special links to Switzerland and our country is associated with them internationally. In the case of chocolate, some cocoa is harvested in West Africa by children. Chocolate manufacturers are expected actively to ensure that conditions improve or, as far as the local social conditions allow, that no child labor is employed at all. We have been involved with this since 2018 through the “Living Income and Child Labor” working group of the Swiss Sustainable Cocoa Platform. Here, we work closely with companies in the chocolate industry and other stakeholders. Similarly, the luxury goods industry, especially the watch and jewelry sector, has a high “Swissness” factor. What is less known is the fact that much of the world’s traded gold, which is also used in this industry, is processed in this country. With the Center for Corporate Responsibility and the Luxury Management competence team, we combine two teams in the Department of International Business dealing with the topic of a responsible luxury goods sector. Such an accumulation of expertise is unique in Switzerland and appeals to companies that want to address human rights issues in their supply chains.

What precisely should competence focus area activities consist of?

Our aim is to integrate the topic of business and human rights in all four performance areas of the ZHAW School of Management and Law, namely degree programs, continuing education, applied research and development, and consulting. In the two degree programs managed by the Department of International Business, the Center of Corporate Responsibility has long been offering a module that deals explicitly with business and human rights. From the beginning, we have worked with guest lecturers from the field who teach the subject from the perspective of an NGO or a multinational company. We also carry out research projects. In 2017, a study was conducted on behalf of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) on the significance and value of OECD Guidelines for multinational enterprises in Switzerland. More recently, we conducted an impact study on the amfori BSCI Social Standard with Migros suppliers in China. Applied research does not deal with basic concepts such as ethical or social aspects of corporate responsibility but instead focuses on answering questions that arise in a practical context. To initiate and carry out such projects successfully, we need dialogue and cooperation with relevant players who contribute to the debate on the economy and human rights in Switzerland and around the world. Our network of research institutes as well as companies, international organizations (e.g., the International Labor Organization ILO), economic initiatives, and NGOs have expanded and strengthened over the past year. For example, within the context of the impact assessment mentioned earlier, we have expanded our network to include the amfori business association with over 2,000 members worldwide.

"As a university of applied sciences, we can transfer knowledge and act as a conduit between players at the intersection between research and application. We also do this through consultancy and training. Here we support our network partners in their activities and find joint solutions to strategic issues, such as human rights due diligence."

Dr. Jörg Schmidt, Center for Corporate Responsibility

How can students at the ZHAW School of Management and Law benefit from these activities?

Through our networks and research activities, many synergies result in excellent teaching and training at the ZHAW School of Management and Law. Our students find issues of value-oriented, responsible corporate governance more crucial than ever, and they see the challenges that modern companies must actively address in the face of climate change, but also concerning working conditions and human rights. The public discussion are for many a reason to think about the role they will play as future managers. This can be seen, for example, during discussions at our regular sustainability get-togethers, but also in the classroom. At the ZHAW School of Management and Law, students expect us to engage with these topics, focus on the practical context, and convey them in a solution-oriented way. Technical foundations and methodological approaches – such as carrying out risk assessments of company activities that may be linked to human rights violations – are highly topical issues. But of course, we also want to show how the strategic integration of corporate responsibility and credible sustainability management can be economic success factors. Young and committed entrepreneurs can use this information to develop ideas for their own companies; companies that offer feasible solutions in an environment characterized by critical expectations and implement them profitably. A university that is open to critical thinking on such key issues and ready to consider new paths will be able to build strong ties to its graduates and nurture a sense of community among its employees. So, when we invite guest lecturers from our network to speak to students, we see that human rights is not just an abstract topic but an issue of strategic importance for companies.

"We would also like to bring our students into contact with companies that work on these issues through business projects or to integrate them into more extensive research projects as part of their Bachelor’s and Master’s theses."

Dr. Jörg Schmidt, Center for Corporate Responsibility

In your opinion, what contribution does this competence focus make to the achievement of the SDGs?

As members of the UN PRME initiative, we are encouraged to be more active than perhaps other business schools, especially when it comes to achieving the SDGs. With the competence focus “Business and Human Rights,” we particularly address SDG 8 on sustainable economic growth and dignified work for all. It is precisely this goal that demonstrates the close link between economic and social sustainability, which we want to highlight and support through our activities.


Dr. Jörg Schmidt, Research Associate and Deputy Head, Center for Corporate Responsibility, ZHAW School of Management and Law