Proxy season is underway, in which companies face their shareholders and their concerns on social issues, and there has been a surge in human rights proposals aimed at such issues as immigration rights and detention, child sexual exploitation, hate speech and privacy.

As of mid-February, 44 shareholder resolutions on human rights had been filed and 33 were pending for votes, according to Proxy Preview 2019, a joint publication from As You Sow, the Sustainable Investments Institute and Proxy Impact. One such resolution asked Costco Wholesale Corp. to file an annual report on its suppliers’ compliance with its Global Policy on Prison Labor, and this received nearly 29% of shareholder votes in January, up from almost 5% the prior year.

With human rights issues, “the difference between 1994 and today is unbelievable,” says David Schilling, senior program director for human rights at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, whose members file many of the proposals each year.

When Schilling joined ICCR 25 years ago, human rights dialogues with companies mostly revolved around their global supply chains. That’s still a prominent issue, he says, but many more topics have recently been added to the table.

According to Schilling, shareholders now expect companies to endorse and implement the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and to score well on the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark and the KnowTheChain benchmark. “We’re trying to encourage a race to the top,” he says, noting that CEOs pay attention to benchmarks. Meanwhile, investors can use human rights benchmarks—which he expects to improve over time—in their engagements and investment decisions.

Investors are also uniting to increase their impact, he says. ICCR organized the Bangladesh Investor Initiative and the Investor Alliance for Human Rights.

“For financial advisors, there’s a real need to get up to speed on the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and particularly the human rights due diligence process,” says Schilling. “Financial advisors also have a responsibility to respect human rights and to be able to utilize some of the tools.”

Over the past couple of years, “human rights has become a really interesting area for shareholder proposals because it is touching on hot-button issues that are being pulled from headlines,” says Michael Passoff, president of Proxy Impact, a San Francisco-based proxy voting and shareholder engagement service, and co-author of Proxy Preview 2019.

“We’re raising issues about human rights that the companies themselves are struggling with,” he says. “They don’t have quick answers or prepared answers.”

Companies are starting to realize they can face risk to their reputations and financial well-being in the ways they handle hate speech, fake news, gun safety, immigration and sexual harassment, Passoff says. He points to the data privacy scandals now engulfing Facebook. Other human rights proposals focus on human trafficking, water rights and operations in conflict zones.

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