July 16, 2020 - Separating private and professional life? Hardly conceivable for Marc-André Bürgel. The subject of human rights is a recurring theme in his life. In his youth, he debated economy, politics and responsibility with family and friends. Later on, in a township in South Africa, he could see the importance of social justice. Today, he works for the Mercedes-Benz Group to promote respect for human rights. In this interview, Marc-André Bürgel explains how the Mercedes-Benz Group as a company assumes responsibility, where the greatest challenges lie, and why he has been committed to the subject of human rights for so long.
You work professionally with the topic of “social compliance”: What does that mean exactly?
We aim to ensure that certain rules in the field of human rights are respected and upheld – not only in our factories, but also in our supply chains. Therefore, we develop the necessary processes and measures. Specifically, this means that we take the requirements, such as those set out by the UN rules relating to human rights, and implement them with the help of our Human Rights Respect System – a system that we use to systematically address potential human rights violations in our supply chains.
How does this Human Rights Respect System work?
Within our sphere of influence, we want to avoid human rights violations as much as possible. This means that we want to identify and respond appropriately to negative human rights impacts in high-risk areas at an early stage. To ensure this, we act in four stages.
First, we identify the risks. Where do certain raw materials come from? Are human rights violated in those countries? If so, which human rights are particularly at risk? Then we define measures to counteract any such violations – and implement them. The next step is to see whether these measures have the desired effect. In our final reporting, we communicate openly and transparently; that is, we report where we stand and where the next challenges lie. In this process, we also work with international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is important to know that the Human Rights Respect System not only aims to reduce the risks to the company, but particularly protects third parties, the so-called right holders. This includes, for example, people living in or near raw material mining areas, for example in the Congo or in South America.
Where do you generally see the greatest challenges?
Major challenges lie where our influence and control are the smallest - in the deeper supply chains – hence: with sub-suppliers, with whom we have no contractual relationship and on whom we therefore have no direct influence. What’s more: our global value chains are extremely complex and not static, they are developing very dynamically. This does not always make it easy to identify and address human rights risks in supply chains. We meet this challenge with risk-based audits, among other things. We also regularly check whether there are new potential risks to human rights. This is a permanent task.
A further challenge lies in technological developments, such as the question of the extent to which the material composition of batteries or the use of recycled raw materials might change. With the expansion of e-mobility, these developments become even more relevant. If we replace certain raw materials such as cobalt in the long term, for example, this can reduce risks. We would completely avoid having to rely on the mining of raw materials. We must always bear that in mind.
Can we as a company act in such a way that we can influence positive effects locally in “critical” countries?
Of course, our influence as an individual company is limited. But we want to set a good example. And that’s what we do. We hope that other companies – especially on site in risk countries – will do the same and cooperate with us. There are, for example, several raw material initiatives, where we work together with other companies in addition to our own measures, and thus strengthen our effect. Besides complying with standards and minimizing risks for the company, the effectiveness on site is important. In the long term, this can only be achieved by providing education and creating alternative livelihoods for the people of these countries. This requires the commitment of many actors - including, of course, politics.
But how do we define what is “right” in terms of human rights?
We do not define what is right ourselves. It is more the case that we base our policy on internationally recognized standards, such as the UN’s guiding principles for business and human rights, the core labor standards of the International Labor Organization, and the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises. They give us orientation on how to implement international human rights in companies. These “standard works” naturally offer a very broad basis, which we need to interpret ourselves. This means that we set priorities that we can pay particular attention to and which we can influence.
And what influence do global human-rights organizations have on our activities?
A very important one! Non-governmental organizations are, so to speak, representatives of the holders of human rights. We listen to these organizations and are in constant contact with them. Once a year, during our Sustainability Dialogue, we work out solutions for current challenges in special workshops with the participating NGO representatives. We want to create transparency and put ourselves to the test again and again. I find the exchange of ideas very beneficial; there is a lot of constructive discussion. It is important that we trust each other and take it seriously – on both sides.
How did you come to the subject of human rights?
I spent hours discussing politics and justice issues with my parents at an early age. Since then, the topic has been a recurring theme in my life: During my studies I dealt with human rights academically during the day – and in the evening I continued discussing with my fellow students. Somehow, I was always surrounded by people who were also interested in the topic or with whom it was great to discuss. Sometimes it’s a burden not to be able to solve all the risks and problems at the push of a button. But for me, it’s enriching to be able to work actively for an improvement. Because in the end, what we do here is supposed to reach the people locally.
Do you also get involved with the topic in your private life?
During my studies, I spent a semester abroad in South Africa. There, I was given the opportunity to gain insights in a social project in one of the townships. When one sees how the people there live, it puts a lot into perspective. The experiences I was able to gather there had a great impact on me. I can really imagine supporting an on site organization for a certain period of time again – to work with the people there, to build something up, to really get involved.
Human rights are...
"... a great achievement in human history. Not to be taken for granted, but an ideal we must constantly work on."
It makes me proud that...
"... I work for a company that accepts its responsibility in this area and actively works to make sure that human rights are respected."
Human rights and sustainability belong together because...
"... for us, sustainability means watching out for the effects of our actions – not only environmentally, but also socially."