Business and human rights: ‘building back better’ from COVID-19

by Louis Mason, Universal Rights Group and Cathy Sun, Universal Rights Group Blog, Blog, Business, Business and human rights, Contemporary and emerging human rights issues, Thematic human rights issues

As the ongoing COVID-19 crisis lays bare deep socioeconomic divisions that plague even some of the wealthiest States around the world, the crucial role that businesses have in ensuring the enjoyment of human rights by all is brought into ever stronger focus. While governments have struggled with the balancing act of enacting restrictive emergency measures to contain the spread of the virus without unduly restricting fundamental freedoms, businesses have been forced to contend with the challenges of ensuring their economic viability, while respecting the rights of their employees and stakeholders. The result in many cases has been a collective failure to secure the basic rights of the most vulnerable in our societies. However, our current predicament also provides an opportunity to glean critical insights into how we can build a more equitable, fair, and sustainable world.

To begin ‘building back better,’ as the UN Secretary-General has put it, we must tackle the root causes of the adverse human rights impacts we are witnessing today. As many such impacts are facilitated by private sector practices, we should turn to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as the most widely recognised framework for State obligations and business responsibilities in safeguarding the rights of workers and stakeholders. Crucially, as was recently recalled by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, these principles continue to apply in a context of crisis. In fact, as the recognised and authoritative framework for State duties and business responsibilities in preventing and addressing adverse business-related human rights impacts, respecting their guidance is more important than ever.

As the world plunges into the worst recession it has seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the International Labour Organisation estimates that 81% of the global workforce, or 2.7 billion workers worldwide, have felt the effects of COVID-19-related measures. Many have been placed under lockdown and forced to shut down businesses, inevitably leaving the poorest and most vulnerable members of society to bear the brunt of its economic consequences. Low-waged workers on zero-hour contracts that offer little financial security and no bargaining power face heightened risks as they are thrust onto the frontlines of the pandemic as essential workers. Suddenly, we have been forced to re-evaluate the meaning of “essential” as we depend on everyday cleaning staff, caregivers, grocery store workers, and mass transport employees to sustain our collective life and survival. These frontline workers face disproportionate risk of disease exposure as they shoulder the responsibility of manufacturing masks, transporting food, caring for the sick, and collecting trash—all while working with few or no safety nets, and often being trapped in exploitative contracts.

As stated in the Guiding Principles, States must enforce laws that are aimed at, or have the effect of, requiring business enterprises to respect human rights. These include labour protection measures for workers, beginning with an adequate minimum wage floor, paid sick leave, maximum working hours, and provision of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to secure the right to health. Furthermore, States must pay special attention to workers in informal sectors, the “gig” economy, and migrant workers, who face greater risks of exploitation and endangerment—extending safeguards for their human rights and dignity, as well as ensuring basic income protection. As it was highlighted during the RightOn webinar dedicated to the theme of ‘Building Back Better’, when bailing out businesses and industries or providing them with financial support to keep them afloat, governments must also require companies commit to clear standards for responsible business conduct, including through both labour and consumer protections.

The second important focus area of the Guiding Principles involves business enterprises’ responsibility to respect human right by not causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts and preventing such impacts from occurring as a result of their operations. This responsibility not only applies to their own activities by, for example, preventing intrusive data collection, or environmental negligence, but also applies to the adverse impacts stemming from their business relations (e.g. supply chains, subcontractors).

The pandemic has offered new opportunities to rethink business accountability in almost every dimension, from employee relations to data privacy to climate security. To emerge from this crisis both stronger and more credible in the eyes of the public, businesses must adhere to their human rights due diligence responsibilities, assessing working conditions across their supply chain and guaranteeing payment to workers in sub-contracted companies. Tech companies developing applications to monitor or trace the spread of the coronavirus must take strong precautions to ensure data privacy and information protection. Social networking platforms—from Facebook to Twitter to Google—must coordinate efforts to set common standards in line with international human rights law for monitoring harmful misinformation and curbing the spread of what Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has called a ‘tsunami’ of hate speech and incitements to violence and discrimination in the wake of COVID-19.

Furthermore, businesses should take greater measures to ensure the sustainability of their operations and to minimize the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change, which continually threaten the lives and livelihoods of poor and vulnerable communities around the world. Businesses are complicit in the costs of air pollution, which alone kills seven million people every year. States should work hand in hand with businesses to approach climate change as a public health and human rights crisis—rewarding reduced carbon emissions and setting benchmarks for increased reliance on green energy and sustainable methods of sourcing. As developing nations will inevitably confront issues of public debt, possibly incentivising accelerated natural resource extractions or deforestation, the global community must come together and draw on the urgency and political will made feasible by the pandemic to generate multilateral support and advance climate protection goals collectively.

Last but not least, the economic disparities and systemic inequalities laid bare during the pandemic have demonstrated the need to move beyond a business and human rights framework toward fundamental wealth redistribution. Indeed, previously unfeasible policies such as a Universal Basic Income have begun to gain traction and we may begin to witness a shift in economic priorities from growth to distribution, and to a greater emphasis on the shared prosperity of societal stakeholders. Ultimately, in the long-term, States will have to re-evaluate policies in order to remedy the disparate effects of the pandemic and to build in social safeguards to minimise the impacts of potential future crises. Such policies may look like increased taxes on wealth and corporate revenues, greater budgetary allocations to health and social security, the restructuring of foreign debt, and the strengthening of fiscal, tax and financial cooperation regionally and globally.

It is clear that our existing social policies and business models are fundamentally unsustainable. In the wake of COVID-19, it is imperative that we recognise the urgency of economic transformation and the necessity of stronger human rights safeguards. The time is now to transform our economic priorities and structures, as the pandemic forces us to confront the inequalities and injustices of this public health crisis. We must seize this opportunity to integrate business and human rights into our vision of a new world post-pandemic—one that places human rights based sustainable development front and centre.

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