United’s Human Rights Problem is the Same as Nestle’s and Nike’s: Supply Chain


The United Airlines passenger removal fiasco is a microcosm of global supply chain problems.

(Full Disclosure: Our Executive Director, and the author of this post, is married to a United pilot)

By now cell phone videos of a United Airlines passenger being dragged from an airplane have crisscrossed the globe. His great wrong was refusing to give up his purchased seat to a crew member. The event has been characterized as a signal that corporations prioritize money over humanity, that police brutality is persistent and that United doesn’t care about its customers.

It’s actually a case study in how supply chains are set up to fail human rights.

United Has a Systemic Human Rights Problem in its Supply Chain

Supply chain abuses can be more harrowing than the victimization of one person, although they rarely hit so close to home. The past year has been rife with examples. Nestle sourced its seafood from enslaved Asian fishermen. FIFA turned a blind eye to the trafficking and deaths of construction crews building World Cup stadiums in Qatar. Children were found mining cobalt for batteries in Apple, Samsung and other companies’ electronics products. Resisting corporate will is particularly deadly in South America – over 50% of attacks on human rights defenders between 2015 and 2016 were committed in just 6 Latin American countries. Standing up for human rights is deadly in the Philippines, too. In 2015 Benilda Santos was shot dead for opposing the construction of a beverage plant in her neighborhood.

Nestle, FIFA, Apple and Samsung have strong policies for protecting consumers and employees. Training regimens focus on the importance of positive workplace culture. United has the same. It even has a human rights policy.

But all these entities have contracts with subsidiaries that carry out essential functions for name brands. The suppliers benefit from contracts with big companies, and those companies get to claim ownership of the products generated by suppliers.

Whole Foods, for example, stamps pineapples with a “Whole Foods” label, but those fruits are actually grown by Dole. In the same way, United stamped that Louisville-bound flight with its logo, although it was operated by a regional carrier called Republic Airlines.

How Regional Carriers are like Sweatshops

United holds Republic to its social standards in vague terms, but it only pays Republic to fulfill contractually agreed flights. A canceled flight is a canceled paycheck for Republic. Likewise, Nike pays its Asian suppliers to make a designated number of sports items by a designated deadline, not to promote women’s empowerment and labor rights. If the supplier misses the deadline, it loses the income.

Much has been written about the shortcomings of contracts for upholding rights-respectful principles, and about the limitations of supply chain audits. Part of what went so wrong in United’s response to the incident was its failure to see that the situation never should have arisen. Republic’s crew should not be reassigned on such short notice that the plane they needed to catch was already fully boarded by the time they reached the gate. If Republic cannot turn a profit without being so short-staffed and time-pressed (which, based on its current $0.20 stock price, it can’t), then its contracts need to be worth more.

Republic’s pilots fought for a living wage and won in 2015. But American, Delta and United didn’t step up to support the costs, even as a nation-wide pilot shortage looms. Without building out the pipeline in regional carriers, the majors will run out of pilots in a matter of years. But in the meantime, Republic alone foots the bill for paying pilots fair wages while watching its revenues and share price plummet.

The Many Victims of United’s Failed Supply Chain Relationships

The clearest victim of United’s failed supply chain relationship with regional carriers (and with aviation security forces) is Dr. Dao, who was still hospitalized as of Tuesday. But there are other victims, too.

The crew reassigned to fly a plane out of Louisville the next day probably got short-changed. They probably thought they were headed home when, upon landing in O’Hare, they learned that they would actually be headed to Louisville to fly another trip the next morning. The crew working the flight likely received insufficient training in client interactions or insufficient sleep to complete the interpersonal part of their jobs. United has worked hard to improve customer service among its direct employees over the past 18 months, but that work has not extended to regional contractors. United employees now face a chilly reception as they walk through airports across the US, considered complicit in the attack on a passenger that, to their mind, wasn’t on their flight and wasn’t mistreated by their colleagues.

Republic’s contract with United is at odds with United’s human rights policy, which claims that United “is not complicit in human rights abuses.” United’s policy that personnel may not touch passengers created a scenario where a force with a weak record for de-escalation training handles passenger removal, even in cases where the passenger has committed no offenses. Chicago Aviation Security violated Dr. Dao’s Security of Person on United’s contractor’s behalf. That’s complicity.

United’s position that Chicago aviation police, not United, committed the abuse doesn’t pass muster. Exxon Mobil is fighting a 16-year lawsuit for the crimes of Indonesian military personnel committed while protecting Exxon’s assets in that country. Name brands own the actions of their subsidiaries and contractors.

How to Fix It

  1. Create more flexibility for the supplier: Republic shouldn’t be penalized for the weather, which is what happens when thunderstorms make it impossible for crew to fly their scheduled Louisville leg (necessitating emergency reassignment of some other crew).
  2. Extend training to suppliers in customer engagement, de-escalation, and problem solving to reduce the need to involve aviation security.
  3. Evaluate security relationships and polices for calling in external security forces. Chicago isn’t the only city where police training has been found to lack focus on community policing and de-escalating tensions. United and its subsidiaries fly to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria and Turkey – all countries where security personnel have a track record of committing abuses. United might need a new policy on calling in security.

The PR campaign United will soon launch, and the management strategy review consultants will soon bill, won’t change the way subsidiaries do business unless United makes it a priority to protect its outsourced workers and its outsourced clients.


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