January 15, 2016 

It’s no wonder that Sarah Labowitz, co-founder, co-director, and research scholar at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, devoted her life to human rights: she is the daughter of an anti-discrimination AIDS lawyer and the granddaughter of two U.S. diplomats who served in the aftermath of WWII.

Labowitz’s family raised her with a devotion to social justice, and she began her career with a broad interest in social justice, public policy, and the role business plays in weak states. One of her first jobs was as the executive assistant at the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and she credits their “eminently practical and deeply ambitious” approach as a formative foundation for her career path. Before co-founding the Center at NYU in 2013, Labowitz worked for the State Department and cultivated her skills from the FLA to continue championing global worker rights.

“The principles of the FLA—taking on the most daunting human rights challenges, working with diverse stakeholders, seeking practical solutions—have remained constants in my career...that spirit of ambition and practicality is the guiding principle,“ Labowitz says.

This past December, Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, research director at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, published the first-ever comprehensive map of factories in Bangladesh, a major apparel-exporting country. They identified more than 7,000 factories—more than double previous estimates—and provided a better understanding of how the fashion industry works. Despite attempts to suppress journalist coverage of these findings, their research has helped give a voice to the nearly three million workers who were previously left out of the conversation surrounding human rights. 

“This has been a very uncomfortable reality for almost all stakeholders to accept,” says Labowitz. “But we're confident that recognizing the true scope and complexity of the manufacturing sector is a necessary precondition for action that helps bring all factories up to minimum standards for safety and decent work.” 

Labowitz believes the largest struggle for the human rights movement in business is being explored through the corporate social responsibility (CSR) model. As she explains it, CSR developed during the 1990s and early 2000s from charity and community relations attempts, to addressing human rights violations like civil wars in oil countries or sweatshop scandals. The CSR model allows for companies to define their metrics and methods of successful human rights intervention.

“Ongoing abuses in places like Bangladesh's garment sector are illustrating the limits of this model,” Labowitz argues. “Companies are spending quite a bit of time and money, but not solving the underlying human rights problems.” 

In response, the Center advances a model rooted in industry-wide human rights standards and metrics that would provide a standard method of evaluation between companies. The use of this model would also allow for the sharing of best practices between companies and stakeholders to advance solutions to the most difficult human rights challenges. The Center argues that this model “demonstrates more value for companies and delivers greater impact in practically improving human rights for workers and communities affected by global business.” 

Looking back at the FLA from her post-college career, Labowitz sees them as an excellent example of this approach.

“Many companies working together with outside stakeholders, accountable to a common standard, [can support] innovative projects [and] share responsibility on issues like long hours of work or discrimination against women factory workers,” Labowitz explains.

The NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights is approaching its third year, and has three goals: Publish more research on a wider range of business sectors, starting with recruitment of migrant workers in the construction industry; Pilot a "shared responsibility," standards-based approach on the very tough issue of forced labor in the fishing industry; and expand opportunities for students to research with the Center, work in human rights internships at multinational companies, and support engagement with companies, governments, and civil society. There is certainly a lot of work to be done for human rights—keep an eye on the Center's developments to see this amazing work evolve at NYU.