Accounting weekly

How SMEs can promote a culture that respects human rights on a grassroots level 

Jeremy Lang, Chief Investment Officer at Business Partners Limited

According to the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), there are an estimated 755 265 formal small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) in South Africa. Collectively, these businesses reportedly employ over 10 million people. Given that the South African SMME sector is a cornerstone of social development, its role in shaping a future in which human rights are respected and protected, should not be underestimated. 

This is the opinion of Jeremy Lang, Chief Investment Officer at small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) financier, Business Partners Limited, who urges SME owners to reflect on the practical ways in which they can promote human rights within their businesses, ahead of Human Rights Day on 21 March. 

Lang elaborates: “Small businesses serve as touchpoints for various segments of society, through their employees, their contract workers, their customers, their supply chains and their immediate communities. They therefore make an impact – both directly and indirectly – on the entire spectrum of internationally recognised human rights. SMEs therefore have a responsibility to avoid infringing on the human rights of the people they employ and interact with, and to address human rights abuses within their sphere of influence.” 

A research article by Professor Brian Ganson, head of the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement (ACDS) at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, found evidence of a clear inter-relationship between small businesses and human rights, with particular reference to SMEs in Cape Town townships. 

Langa township in Cape Town, was one of the major sites of mass protest in which hundreds of people were killed and wounded on 21 March 1960 – an event precipitated by the Sharpeville Massacre which led to the establishment of Human Rights Day in South Africa. 

Today, Langa is a thriving hub for small businesses and a relatively new entrant into the hospitality industry. Zone 17, in particular plays host to an array of Capetonians and international visitors who visit the location to immerse themselves in the area’s rich cultural and historical heritage. Langa is also home to an increasing number of fast-food outlets and art galleries that showcase the work of local creatives. 

Langa is a microcosm of the South African SME landscape. As an example, it mirrors global research that has found that SMEs play a pivotal role in peace and human development, conflict resolution and reconciliation, both as job creators and community builders. As such, the public sector needs to act on its duty to support and develop emerging SMEs and assist in inculcating a culture of human rights appreciation and acknowledgment within SMEs. 

In light of the role of SMEs in shaping more equitable, just societies, Jeremy Lang hones in on three of the most applicable human rights within the context of business and provides the following advice for SMEs: 

The right to self-determination

The right to self-determination involves the rights of all people to pursue economic, social and cultural development freely and without outside interference. Within the South African context, this right is particularly relevant to locals and their place within the international community. 

For small businesses, respecting and protecting this right means not engaging in business activities on land that has traditional or cultural significance for the local people of that land without the required approvals or community involvement. It also means that all individuals with whom an SME interacts and transacts, have the right to choose their own economic, social and political affiliations, without fear of being discriminated against. 

The right to privacy

SMEs are responsible for respecting their employees’ and stakeholders’ right to privacy. This issue has come under intense scrutiny in recent times, along with the ratification of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI Act) in 2021. South African SMEs need to follow the example of large corporates in familiarising themselves with the POPI Act, not only in respect of how customers’ data is used but also how data that belongs to their employees is used and distributed. The POPI Act also has implications for how much information SMEs can ask for from job applicants and their employees. Retaining CVs of job applicants for example, after they have been used for the relevant purpose, would be a violation of the POPI Act, which gives effect to the fundamental human right to privacy.. For SMEs, having a privacy policy in place is essential. 

Further examples of human rights violations in this regard, include disclosing confidential information that an employee might have shared with an in-house counsellor, requiring pregnancy tests as part of job applications or selling equipment or technology that can be used to track and monitor individual’s communications and movements. 

The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion

South Africa is a multi-cultural hub, characterised by the existence of many different creeds, religious and spiritual backgrounds and ways of self-expression. Every individual has the freedom to choose these aspects of their identity freely and without fear of discrimination. In respecting this human right, SMEs need to scrutinise their attitudes and approaches to employees and stakeholders who are diverse in their belief systems. Not allowing the wearing of certain religious or spiritual clothing and symbols, would be a violation of this right. In addition, it is the obligation of every SME to ensure that individuals belonging to any spiritual or religious faith, have the opportunity to apply for reasonable time off for religious holidays and observances. 

Lang concludes: “As leaders in the business realm as well as in their communities, SME owners have a unique opportunity to lead the way in terms of promoting a culture that respects human rights at a grassroots level – which ultimately, is where it matters most and where real transformation happens first.”