Integrating business and human rights into state responses to COVID-19

06/04/20 - Gabrielle Holly and Elin Wrzoncki, Danish Institute for Human Rights

The pandemic has revealed the critical role of business in public life and the central role that the state must play in preserving public health and managing shocks to the economic system. State responses must promote responsible business conduct and address inequality through the protection of human rights, write Gabrielle Holly and Elin Wrzoncki

COVID-19 has thrown pre-existing fragilities and inequalities in our economic system into sharp relief. The magnitude of the crisis has required governments to play a central role, while at the same time revealing the importance of the private sector in public life. Understanding the state’s centrality in directing responses to the pandemic reminds us of the need for states to adhere to the principles set out in Pillar I of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), both in the immediate term and as we rebuild the economy after COVID-19.

The crisis has highlighted the precariousness of vulnerable worker groups — who are low-waged, on casual or zero-hours contracts and often lack bargaining power — and the risks that arise when private sector actors assume responsibility for the provision of essential services. Couriers, transport and logistics workers, cleaning staff and supermarket employees have suddenly found themselves on the frontline of a pandemic as we re-evaluate what constitutes an “essential” service.

Staying at home to prevent the spread of the virus is a luxury that few can afford, and one that is largely denied to those in the global south. In the UK, unions representing gig economy workers have expressed fears that those without access to sick leave may continue to work even with  symptoms of COVID-19. As Amazon “auditions to be the new Red Cross”, its employees have threatened walkouts over the firm’s internal handling of the situation. Some cleaners lack adequate PPE, even where they are working in high-risk environments such as hospitals. State intervention, in line with ILO guidance and the requirements of the UNGPs, is needed to ensure the health and safety of these workers.

The impact of COVID-19 on workers in global supply chains affected by drastic reductions in orders for consumer goodshas been described as nothing short of apocalyptic. At the same time, workers involved in the manufacture of products essential to protect public health, such as rubber gloves, face different risks. As demand for PPE surges globally, these supply chains are overheating, exacerbating risks of labour rights abuses and underscoring the need for state agencies to integrate human rights in the procurement cycle

At the other end of the value chain, there have been reports of price gouging of critical medical supplies, forcing states to seize and redistribute essential goods and business actors to collaborate with governments to prevent profiteering. The right to health calls for states to give primacy to public health, rather than financial considerations in decisions around access to healthcare and essential medicines.

Businesses bear a parallel responsibility to respect human rights in their own responses to the crisis, exceeding government guidance where necessary. Company responses to the pandemic have varied widely, and are being tracked by media and NGOs. Businesses which have failed to respect human rights in their responses to COVID-19 are unlikely to be rewarded by consumers or investors when the dust settles, and companies would do well to apply the principles of human rights due diligence set out in the UNGPs, which remain capable of directing action even in times of crisis. 

Countries which have been under lockdown are beginning to see signs of social unrest stemming from economic anxiety, pointing to the need to ensure that the state approach to recovery is mindful of existing inequalities, including ameliorated conditions for vulnerable workers. Measures taken to address economic crises have often been detrimental to the economic and social rights of the most vulnerable groups. Mobilisation for a “just recovery” through a “People’s Bailout” is flourishing, indicating that many see an opportunity to address the systematic flaws of our current economic system. Ideas that would have up until recently been regarded as politically impossible, such as Universal Basic Income, are being considered. It is argued that where state bailouts occur, SMEs and individuals should take primacy over large businesses and that support for the private sector should be conditional on responsible business conduct

As the world rallies to protect public health, we are also reminded that millions of individuals’ rights to health and to life are already being severely impacted by environmental degradation and climate change. The recent decrease in air pollution and CO2 emissions generated a sense of hope that globally agreed climate goals could be achievable with the same political will and sense of urgency shown in the coronavirus crisis. Some analysts argue that we might see the beginning of the end for the oil industry. 

However, in order to ease the perceived burden on businesses, states may be tempted to de-prioritize environmental protection and climate action and relax policies which aim to protect the rights of workers and communities. Developing nations facing massive public debt may accelerate natural resources extraction and deforestation in order to secure revenues and create jobs. 

Civil and political rights are also at risk during this crisis. Sweeping emergency measures reducing freedoms of movement and association have been taken, digital technologies are being used to track the virus, and specific restrictions on protests against oil and gas infrastructure projects have been reported. These measures have far-reaching consequences that could well continue after the pandemic and contribute to further silencing of dissenting voices, in particular those perceived as “anti-development”. Yet those voices will be crucial in the debate on the measures needed to recover from this crisis with respect for human rights.

To ensure that recovery after COVID-19 is just and equitable, we must refocus on sustainable development and the principles set out in the 2030 Agenda, in which respect for human rights is deeply embedded. The fundamental principles set out in the UNGPs remain a critical touchstone to guide the actions of state and business actors in these unprecedented times.

 

For more information on the impact of COVID-19 on business and human rights, head to our in-depth area.