Wed, Jun 26, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Making global giants respect LGBTI rights

An initiative by multinationals to promote LGBTI rights lacks substance, as many firms operate in countries hostile to gay people

By Bisi Alimi

In January last year, at the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, the forum, the UN and leading multinational companies announced an initiative to promote inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

It is a welcome step, but how will it work in countries where it is still socially unacceptable, or even illegal, to be gay?

The initiative, called the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, aims to help companies assess their own compliance with the UN’s LGBTI Standards of Conduct to accelerate progress toward LGBTI equality within their global workforces.

However, this approach overestimates global companies’ capacity to self-regulate across all levels of their businesses.

As it stands, businesses tend to hold branches in LGBTI-hostile countries — such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Russia — to lower standards than branches in countries where LGBTI people’s human rights are respected.

For example, the world’s four largest accounting firms — Ernst & Young, Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte — have some of the most progressive LGBTI policies of any workplace worldwide, but in Nigeria, they maintain a policy of silence and feigned ignorance regarding LGBTI rights.

One trend that facilitates such divergences is the growing popularity of “limited liability partnerships,” in which a company outsources its brand to another entity, rather than establishing a branch or subsidiary of its own.

As a result, even if a company is global in name and brand, its operations often remain a local affair, with each entity subject to the values and narratives of the country or community in which it is based.

This decentralization of major multinationals impedes transparency and accountability, undercutting the effectiveness of any due diligence framework.

My organization, the Bisi Alimi Foundation, has seen firsthand just how wide the disconnect can be.

In our drive to accelerate social acceptance of LGBTI people in Nigeria, we have pursued engagement — such as at our annual London business roundtables — with multinationals that have a presence in the country.

Initially, we assumed that establishing ties at a company’s headquarters would facilitate engagement with local branches in Lagos or Abuja, but we quickly learned that supportive leaders in London meant little for Nigeria. Many local partners ruled out taking on LGBTI rights.

This is true of even one very progressive global company with which I have been working for years. Although it has done important work on LGBTI rights in Europe and the US, its Nigerian partner refuses to engage on LGBTI issues at all, emphasizing “religious freedom” instead.

To be effective in advancing inclusion, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality cannot simply rely on headquarters to carry out due diligence across all levels of the company, at least not within current frameworks.

To overcome the challenge created by decentralization, companies will have to make LGBTI rights a fundamental part of their brand, no longer subject to local-level interpretation.

Given the economic benefits that LGBTI inclusion implies — according to a 2017 Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS study, workplace homophobia and discrimination cost countries up to US$100 billion per year — the case for such a strategy is strong.

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