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Opinion

Biden-Harris need ‘all hands on deck’ approach to promote respect for human rights

President-elect Joseph Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris are to be congratulated for prevailing in an exceptionally fraught and exhausting 2020 election. While a break to recover and regroup might be appreciated, the multiple crises facing the United States means they won’t have that luxury. The struggle to save lives during COVID-19, the climate crisis at our doorstep, and a recession battering already suffering low wage workers, are a collective all-hands-on-deck call for the Biden Administration to act quickly and decisively to right the ship.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) and the Investor Alliance for Human Rights (IAHR) hope to see the following human rights and business concerns prioritized by the incoming administration:

Expand and enhance workers’ rights in global supply chains

President-elect Biden has made elevating the voice of the American working class the foundation of his campaign. Now is the time to walk this talk, by pressing legislators and corporate America to view workers as its most precious asset, rather than a cost they are looking to cut.

The government should implement a mandatory minimum wage of at least $15 per hour as a floor, with an eye towards establishing a living wage standard. Adequate paid leave for all workers, including temporary, part-time and subcontracted workers, should be legislated, and workers should receive at least 12 weeks’ paid Family Medical Leave.

The Biden Administration should revise occupational health and safety standards to reduce exposure to serious risks like COVID-19, including rotating shifts, decreasing line speeds, providing remote work options and closing locations as necessary. Forced labor needs to be eradicated from global supply chains and due diligence around recruitment practices acting as a gateway to debt bondage must be a part of this process.

The US government, built on the hard work of union employees, must strongly support freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining and condemn any intimidation that hampers union organizing. Critically, worker voices must be integral in corporate policy and decision-making so the aspiration of the Business Roundtable, [that] “Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity”, can be made manifest.

Promote prosperity on a live-able planet

President-elect Biden recognizes the extent of the climate threat to humanity and global human rights and will be kept busy reversing the adverse environmental rules enacted by his predecessor.

A day-one priority will be to re-enter the U.S. into the Paris Climate Agreement, sending a strong signal that we need to accelerate the transition and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 to make up lost ground. Obama-era policies such as federal methane standards and robust auto emissions standards must be re-instated and augmented in light of evolving climate science. We must de-emphasise fossil fuels and build a clean energy economy within a just transition framework that links support for necessary climate action with commitments to inclusive jobs and environmental justice. In short, we must focus on workers and communities who contribute to, and will be most affected by, the transition.

Companies must also recognize and take affirmative steps to address the human rights challenges faced by fence-line communities - most often indigenous groups and communities of color - disproportionately impacted by corporate operations, and should be held to account when they don’t.

Safeguard the Human Right to Health

Biden has stressed that a priority must be getting COVID-19 cases under control to stem the tide of death. Reversing our withdrawal from the World Health Organization should be a first step. The federal resources pledged to the pharmaceutical industry were critical in bringing forth vaccine and therapeutic measures against the virus. But even before COVID-19 put it in stark relief, it was abundantly clear Pharma’s business model is deeply flawed and doesn’t fully support the human right to health. As public funds were used to underwrite the research and development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID medicine, government must insist that access and affordability are prioritized for any candidates brought to market. In order to scale the manufacture of vaccines needed globally, the government should strongly urge the pooling of intellectual property rights to facilitate technology transfers and drive the scale-up of production and distribution. These same principles hold true for all life-saving medicine.

Make tax just

President-elect Biden has rightfully committed to restructure deeply unjust tax policies that deprive the US Government of funds needed to fully support its citizenry, favor corporations and the rich over the economically vulnerable, and fuel the growing income gap at the root of much domestic social unrest. We hope he will unwind Trump’s corporate tax cuts and close corporate loopholes, end anonymous shell companies, strengthen global anti-corruption initiatives and boost enforcement of existing laws.

Global momentum in favor of regulation to standardize the way companies conduct human rights and environmental due diligence and allow for more efficient and predictable risk management in supply chains, is growing. The U.S. should join EU members in pressing for federal regulation that mandates human rights and environmental due diligence by companies.

Failure by the incoming administration to seize this opportunity and act decisively will have social and economic repercussions far more damaging than those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of ICCR and IAHR will continue to encourage introspection by companies to ensure their missions, business models, governance structures and operations support a new economic vision built on justice and a respect for human rights.

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