“Shedding light on banking-related human rights issues”

ABN AMRO is the first financial institution in the world to publish a comprehensive report on its human rights policy. The report outlines what the bank is doing right and where it still needs to improve – not just in far-flung places, but also close to home. “The right to privacy, for instance, is very much a burning issue for Dutch clients and staff. But a problem like human trafficking deserves attention, too.”

A man recently tried to open a bank account at an ABN AMRO branch, but was refused on the grounds that he had been issued a passport by a country against which international sanctions have been imposed. Was the decision justified or discriminatory? This is one of the more challenging cases illustrated in ABN AMRO’s Human Rights Report 2016​ (PDF 1 MB). Over the last few months, the bank has been looking at how its human rights policy impacts on clients, staff and others in their everyday lives. Presenting a balanced overview of strengths and weaknesses, the report is based on the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework. ABN AMRO is thus the first financial institution in the world to publish so extensively on this subject and joins the ranks of H&M, Unilever and Nestlé as a forerunner in this area.

Close to home

For many of us, the term “human rights” evokes war-torn or faraway countries. But human rights violations can occur closer to home, too. For years, ABN AMRO has implemented policies to prevent human rights violations from happening as a result of its operations. “We compiled the Human Rights Report 2016 to assess whether the policy is actually working in people’s everyday lives,” explains Tjeerd Krumpelman, Head of Business Advisory, Reporting & Stakeholder Management at ABN AMRO. The first focus was on human rights with the highest risk of being adversely affected by the bank’s operations and relationships, also referred to as “salient issues” in the report. For ABN AMRO, these are privacy, discrimination, labour rights and land-related rights. Issues became clear as a result of discussions with staff, clients and other stakeholders not just in the Netherlands, but also in places like Singapore, Dubai and Brazil.

Asking the right questions

When asked to summarise the findings of the report, Krumpelman says, “We’re doing a lot of things right, but could still improve in some areas.” The points raised in the report will enable the bank to improve both policy and its implementation. “The human rights report isn’t an end in itself,” adds Maria Anne van Dijk, Head of Environmental, Social & Ethical Risk & Policy. The creation of the report has produced new insight and awareness. “The bank’s operations directly affect over 5 million clients worldwide and have an indirect impact on millions of other people. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what that impact is. The only way to find out is to ask the right questions. The answers can help us to recognise those situations in which human rights are at stake and to take action to make changes ourselves or promote change by other stakeholders.”

Following up

The report’s findings are wide-ranging, says van Dijk. “The right to privacy, for instance, is very much a burning issue for Dutch clients and staff. But a problem like human trafficking deserves attention, too. We know human trafficking is likelier to occur in certain sectors. Sometimes it’s unintentional, too – as can happen when companies enlist the wrong employment agencies.” Krumpelman says, “We discuss this issue with our account managers and train them how to follow up and keep asking questions of business clients if there’s a need.” Sometimes situations outside the Netherlands require solutions that take into account the local context, explains van Dijk. “It’s easy for us here to insist on the fact that everyone has the right to join a trade union if they want to. But in some countries in which ABN AMRO or its clients do business, unions are banned.” In this case, the bank could give staff the opportunity to collectively discuss company-related topics. And so could its business clients.

Tool for progress

The initial effects of the report are already making themselves felt. In various parts of the organisation, solutions are actively being sought for some of the issues uncovered in the report. “Although we’ve now published our findings, that doesn’t mean our work is done. In many ways, it’s only just begun,” stresses Krumpelman. “We look forward to continuing to improve our human rights policy. The report is an excellent tool for making progress. It enforces rigour, asks questions and brings everything together.”