02 | 2021

Interview with Dr. Alexandra Albrecht-Baba

Human rights in the construction industry: What does that mean?

Transparent reporting in the area of human rights is a competitive advantage, says Dr. Alexandra Albrecht-Baba in an interview for concepts with the author Sebastian Bröder. As the Chief Human Rights Officer of HOCHTIEF, her task is to explain the significance of this topic and to identify human rights risks within the company.

conceptsDr. Albrecht-Baba, what kind of challenges do you deal with as the Chief Human Rights Officer of HOCHTIEF?

Dr. Alexandra Albrecht-BabaHOCHTIEF has been paying attention to the issue of human rights for a long time. For example, we have been participant in the UN Global Compact, an initiative of the United Nations, since 2008. And back in 2011 we incorporated the significance of the protection of human rights into our HOCHTIEF Code of Conduct. By means of the HOCHTIEF Code of Conduct for Business Partners, we oblige our contractual partners to also accept our standards for respecting and upholding human rights. The challenge consists of clearly explaining to our company’s employees what is at issue for HOCHTIEF and in what kinds of situations there is a particular risk of a possible violation of human rights. In addition, we are conducting a comprehensive survey of already established measures at our company that have been protecting human rights for a long time although we have not previously identified them as such. Because this is a topic that has an impact on all parts of the company, many specialized departments are affected—for example, the Human Resources, Procurement, and Occupational Safety units—and of course our business operations as well.

conceptsWhat risks are you referring to? In what areas is the topic of human rights relevant to the construction industry?

Albrecht-BabaFirst of all, there are country-specific risks that we’re keeping our eyes on. The question we’re asking is: In which of the countries where HOCHTIEF operates have the frameworks and agreements on the protection of human rights been implemented, and what requirements are being laid down for companies as a result? In addition, our activities as a company result in risks to human rights in a variety of areas. These areas include our employees, our contractual partners, and other individuals who come into contact with our activities, such as local residents and users of infrastructure facilities. Very generally speaking, this begins with health risks, continues with the threat of discrimination in areas such as recruitment and hiring processes, and extends to include illegal employment practices and child labor. The protection of personal data, the right of appeal, and the struggle against corruption are also included in the category of human rights risks. These examples show that we are not dealing with completely new topics. Instead, they are the result of a reclassification using the concept of human rights as a criterion.

conceptsHow significant for human rights is the new due diligence law that was passed in Germany in June?

Albrecht-Baba   The due diligence law obliges companies, among other things, to identify human rights risks that result from their activities and to implement measures that address these risks. Dealing with human rights risks along the supply chain presents a special challenge, which we tackled long before the due diligence law was enacted. We already have several ways of meeting this responsibility, and we are implementing them. In addition to the contractual obligation to comply with our standards as defined in the HOCHTIEF Code of Conduct for Business Partners, we also, for example, arrange for especially important suppliers and subcontractors to be audited by independent companies that specialize in sustainability and thus also in human rights issues. If we sign a contract with a supplier who is based in a country with a high level of risk, the supplier must once again undergo a special investigation by our Procurement unit in cooperation with the Compliance unit. If we have indications that compliance with our standards is at risk, we can react to that situation.

conceptsWhat can employees do if they receive tips or have a suspicion concerning illegal activities?

Albrecht-BabaWe regularly and transparently communicate information about the contact persons that employees and people outside the company can turn to if they observe a critical situation. About 15 years ago HOCHTIEF established what it called its “ethics hotline” for this purpose. Today it’s called the whistleblower hotline. It’s a telephone number and an e-mail address that people can use if they have discovered a possible violation of the regulations. Of course it’s also possible to use these channels anonymously. In the context of compliance, this is called whistleblowing. It’s all about having a mechanism for complaints that enables people to make potential violations of the rules known as quickly as possible. That makes it possible for us to conduct more detailed investigations of such situations.

conceptsIs HOCHTIEF at risk of becoming less competitive if it needs to spend lots of money in order to guarantee compliance with the rules?

Albrecht-BabaFor the authorities that award public works contracts in European countries, the attitude “We must have cost-effectiveness, no matter what” has long been outmoded. The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries in particular have been pioneers in this regard. Sustainability aspectsincluding human rightsplay a huge role in the area of prequalification and the evaluation of tenders. The authorities attach great importance to these points. For example, when contracts are awarded they don’t always go to the company that makes the lowest bid. Instead, sustainability aspects are also taken into account. As a result, the time and effort required by measures such as a more detailed reporting process about these aspects of a project can be absolutely worth the expense.

conceptsWould you say that paying attention to the topic of human rights and reporting about these matters transparently is a competitive advantage?

Albrecht-BabaYes, we are definitely seeing this development. For the past six years we’ve been devoting a separate chapter to human rights in our annual Group Report. In past years we have had our tenders accepted because we were already able to deliver reports about sustainability and human rights. The legal requirements for European companies to report on sustainability in greater detail within the framework of their annual reports are becoming more stringent. As a result, transparency in our dealings with human rights and systematic reporting on risks related to human rights are becoming increasingly important. That is exactly the task we have today: creating even more transparency.

is the Head of Corporate Compliance & Legal Affairs at HOCHTIEF. She also took over the company’s newly created position Chief Human Rights Officer in May 2021.