2018: The Year to Protect All Vulnerable Groups from Workplace Abuse

As many recovered from their late nights and contemplated a new year on the morning of January 1st, I opened up the newspaper to the announcement of the Hollywood-led Time’s Up launch—an initiative to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. What caught my eye though, was not just the fact that the initiative seeks new legislation and actionable corporate commitments as key objectives, but that these strong Hollywood women saw beyond their industry and hope to effect lasting change for women across all industries in the U.S., from janitors to waitresses and garment factory workers. Just maybe, I thought, this birds-eye perspective of the issues women face in the private sector could indeed lead to lasting change for women in every workplace environment.

However, while change for women in the U.S. workplace is long past due, let us not forget that other vulnerable groups also fall victim to human rights abuses in the private sector, where discrimination, poor working conditions, and sexual harassment are widespread and well-documented issues.  For example, an estimated one in four LGBT employees reported employment discrimination from 2005 to 2011.

With this in mind, could 2018 be the year in which we declare that it is “time’s up” not just for the shameful treatment of women in the U.S. workplace, but of all vulnerable populations?  There are already numerous promising initiatives underway to support the LGBTI, migrant worker, and refugee communities, that make me think that this just might be possible.

The U.S. LGBTI community has made several strides in the past few years (notably, achieving marriage equality in 2015), while also facing baffling setbacks, including the 2017 Arkansas Supreme Court decision to strike down a local government’s ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The issue of workplace mistreatment of the LGBTI community is real: An estimated 50 percent of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in the U.S. experience some form of workplace harassment and discrimination because of their sexual orientation,  with the percentage jumping to 90 percent for the transgender community.  In the absence of any nation-wide law to protect gender and sexual minorities from discrimination, the corporate sector has been in need of clear guidance on how to prevent such injustices and turn company culture and values into action.

This guidance came from the United Nations in late September 2017, and deserves renewed attention.  Building on more overarching frameworks for the private sector, such as the 2000 UN Global Compact, the 2011 UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, and the 2012 Children’s Rights and Business Principles, Tackling Discrimination Against LGBTI People: Standards of Conduct for Business focuses its efforts more narrowly to lay out clear steps for companies to prevent mistreatment of the LGBTI community in the workplace. The standards have seen promising uptake by business with early adopters including major U.S. based corporations such as The Coca-Cola Company, Gap Inc., Microsoft, and Oath.

Migrant workers and refugees in the U.S. have also faced an uphill battle in the workplace.  Not only did 2017 result in a federal government push to curb refugee intake and reduce new employment opportunities for migrant workers, but those already in the U.S. continued to experience workplace difficulties.   For example, multiple sources including the ACLU report that U.S. migrant workers, especially guestworkers, domestic and agricultural workers, as well as undocumented workers, are often victims of “grave and systemic human rights violations,” from discrimination to harassment and exploitation.

Nonetheless, several corporations are demonstrating leadership in this area, helping to pave the way for stronger protections of the rights of migrants and refugees.  In October 2017, Ben & Jerry’s showed its support for the Milk with Dignity initiative, aimed at improving living and working conditions for migrant dairy workers.  And when it comes to supporting refugee employment, the yogurt manufacturer Chobani has taken a leadership position with over 15% of its workforce comprised of refugees.  Furthermore, Chobani announced plans in December 2017 to significantly expand its Twin Falls, Idaho plant, creating substantial new jobs opportunities for incoming refugees.

Lastly, women’s workplace rights are not only being bolstered by the recently announced Time’s Up movement. Corporate acknowledgement of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination and leadership on making concrete changes is on the rise.  In December 2017, Microsoft announced that it would end employment agreements that require employee harassment complaints to remain private.  This handed a major victory to the #MeToo movement, and showed that corporate practice can in fact be reshaped by calls for change.

Of course, corporate leadership, grass roots initiatives, and guidance from international organizations cannot be the only impetus for progress.  These efforts must be coupled with strong nation-wide legislation to prohibit these different kinds of workplace abuse once and for all.

Given the way the first day of 2018 began, I feel a sense of hope and hear a clear call for change.  I urge the voices of all vulnerable groups to continue getting louder and for corporate actors to listen attentively.  After all, we have seen in 2017 that loud voices can lead to cascading dominoes in the workplace and steps toward uprooting the status quo for those who most need their human rights protected.