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16 Jun 2020

Maysa Zorob & Andrea Hearon, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

What are the avenues for corporate liability for COVID-19-related human rights abuses?

The devastating human rights implications of the global COVID-19 pandemic have been thoroughly documented:Civil society has exposed the failure of many governments to protect their citizens and of many businesses to respect human rights in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights. Workers are routinely forced to work without adequate equipment to protect them from contracting the disease, are denied paid sick leave when they get sick or need to self-isolate and are laid off without notice or compensation. To what extent does the corporate responsibility to respect human rights translate into liability for failure to do so?

Existing Liability Avenues 

National tort, labour, contract and/ or criminal law provisions may provide potential avenues for workers to seek redress for COVID-19 related abuses of labour and other human rights. Over the past couple of months, we have seen a number of tort-based lawsuits brought against companies for allegedly failing to take necessary safety precautions, thus violating the duty of care they owe their workers. One such lawsuit was brought in the US against Walmart by the family of a Walmart employee who died from COVID-19.... McDonalds and Celebrity Cruises are facing class action lawsuits alleging negligence for lack of protective measures implemented. Other corporations will see suits requesting injunctions to stop commercial activity until the company puts in place appropriate procedures to mitigate employees’ risk of contracting the disease. The French court in Nanterre has already issued such a measure for Amazon’s failure to implement appropriate safety procedures...

In addition to civil liability, employers may face liability under criminal law. Many European countries have updated national regulations to address new safety measures to protect citizens during the pandemic. Some of these provisions are specifically aimed at criminal liability for failing to protect workers...

Most of these justice avenues are not accessible to the world’s informal workforce, who perform precarious work based on non-standard employment that is poorly paid, insecure and unprotected. Daily wage earners, casual supply chain workers, and migrant workers are disproportionately harmed by the impacts of the pandemic and are also those with least access to remedy.