Businesses across the world have a responsibility to observe human rights as they respond to the global Covid-19 pandemic, according to a leading think tank.
The statement from the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) comes as the world comes to terms with the economic impact of lockdowns across and the globe and debate intensifies over how to exit measures to counter the virus.
In a report designed to heighten awareness of human rights, the IHRB notes that in national crises companies often find themselves at the forefront of efforts to support government policy. However, they should observe human rights as they do so, adding that while the UN’s Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on Business and Human Rights makes no mention of “specific” rights, such as health or the responsibilities of business in a crisis, it remains relevant.
According to the report, UNGPs still place responsibilities on companies to “undertake due diligence and assess impacts of their operations and conduct in terms of respect for all rights, including the right to health; to take all possible steps to mitigate any harms; to ensure that conduct does not cause or contribute towards harms; address risks identified as salient; and to enable the realisation of all rights, including the right to health, by using all forms of available leverage.”
John Morrison, chief executive of the IHRB, said the human rights implications of the pandemic are “potentially limitless” and place a “responsibility” on business to act.
“Given the scale and severity of the unfolding crisis, companies of all sizes and operating in all contexts are now faced with a range of unprecedented challenges that will require clarity of thinking, sharp focus on goals, commitment to adhere to international standards and norms, creativity, and a concerted effort toward collective action,” he said.
Duty of care
The pandemic has led many groups to reflect on human rights and the duties of government. Human Rights Watch has even produced a checklist of questions for state authorities to use to ensure their policies maintain human rights in their territories.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has also drawn attention to to the need for human rights to remain front and centre in policy measures against the virus.
However, most of the focus has been on governments. The IHRB shifts the spotlight to companies and their response.
The report argues that companies have a “special duty of care” to staff and other people impacted by their activities and highlights a range of measures that companies should be taking which include provision of “safe and sanitary” working conditions; protecting workers in contact with the general public from exposure to the disease.
The reports cites the action of US superstore chain Walmart, which employs 1.5 million people. The company offered a new emergency leave, telehealth consultations and sanitary equipment in stores to protect staff.
However, the IHRB argues human rights in the pandemic go further than health protection. The report also raises concerns such as discrimination and the possibility of employees facing racism and prejudice as they undertake their work.
“Companies must take all reasonable steps to protect employees being stigmatised or attacked, physically or verbally. Companies must have a zero-tolerance policy regarding such discrimination, aggression, bullying, or harassment of employees, sub-contractors, consumers, visitors, or associates, by anyone—colleagues, visitors, or consumers,” the report says.
The report also warns businesses to “do no harm”: work or company activities should not help spread the disease.
Some of the thinking in the report is led by responses to other natural disasters. In a special mention the IHRB examines the response of Sime Darby, a Malaysian plantations company, to the 2014 Ebola crisis in Liberia. Among many measures undertaken by the business was the creation of a clinic with an annual budget of $280,000 and a staff of 40 serving up to 2,500 patients each month.
In 2017 ExxonMobil helped 550 employees with home clean-up facilities and granted $7.5m in emergency loans following Hurricane Harvey.
John Morrison said: “Following the immediate reactive phase, the world will need to look toward longer-term resilience, to ensure the crisis response leads to positive outcomes, including as part of ongoing efforts to address the climate crisis and drastically reduce carbon emissions while fostering sustainable development for all.”