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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

COVID-19 and its impact on businesses and workers International Organisation of Employers Digital DialogueStatement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

29 April 2020

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In just four months, the world has been transformed. The COVID pandemic is an unprecedented and growing global crisis with devastating health, economic and social impact in every country. It is plunging the world economy into a recession of historic dimensions.

As of 1 April 2020, the ILO’s new global estimates indicate that working hours will decline by 6.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 –equivalent to 195 million full-time jobs lost1. It is important to note that the final tally of annual job losses this year will depend on the evolution of the pandemic and the measured taken by governments and the private sector, to mitigate its impact.

I welcome the IOE’s continued engagement in forging economic processes that uphold human rights, and which can assist to shape effective responses to the pandemic – both now; and in coming months, as the virus continues circling around the world.

Many, if not most businesses face the challenges of massive shifts in demand, supply chains, transportation and mobility and worker protection – to name just some of the major topics before you.

Workers, too, are facing shocks – and so are consumers. The fear of becoming infected. The prospect of losing livelihoods.   These and other severe vulnerabilities are being exacerbated by inadequate social protection coverage, which means that millions of people around the world are unable to access adequate medical care, or any social benefits.  

I understand that business leaders have a wealth of pressing concerns, yet I would like to put workers, and other ordinary people, at the core of your discussions today.  The health of every business depends on both workers', and consumers', well-being. And we need clear thinking and responsible solidarity, to ensure that the least possible damage is done, throughout this crisis, to everyone.

Your businesses are facing intense and immediate challenges, yet you also must look ahead.

The world will be living with this virus for months and years, as the struggle to keep it in check continues. You, but also your workers, your consumers and your communities will be adapting to these changes. And it is important that this community of mutual interests be at the core of the decisions you make.

This commitment to human rights is the way to do good business and make more effective assessments of the way ahead.

Fundamental human rights and freedoms make us all more resilient to crisis, more flexible, more adaptable, more accountable and better informed. The crisis that is unfolding due to COVID-19 is uncharted territory, yes, but we have a compass. Human rights guidance and laws – including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – have been devised to help decision-makers act responsibly and effectively in dealing with every kind of disaster, and to help them build back, better.

The baseline responsibility, for all businesses, is to respect human rights in their own operations and business relationships. The practical way to do so is to employ human rights due diligence processes, to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their human rights impact. And this tool can be key to your identification of the impact of COVID on your supply chains, demand chains, and systems.

You need this precision and clarity to allow you to make adequate responses. It is essential, and will continue to be, throughout this epidemic, that you identify, assess and address the new risks it is generating – so that you can shape prompt and relevant policies.

This is a health crisis, first and foremost. It is vital, and urgent, to ensure the health and safety of your workers, especially those in the health-care sector, client-facing responsibility, or with significant workplace interaction. All workers, without discrimination, should have access to health care and protective material, and their risk of exposure should be reduced. Businesses should also be assessing the impacts on workers in their supply chains and using their leverage to safeguard the rights of those who work for their suppliers. This is a matter of the most basic self-interest and core to upholding human rights.

In this context, special attention needs to be paid to day laborers, non-contract workers, temporary employees, and those without social protection coverage who work in your supply chains. Many of them are women or from vulnerable groups, and your immediate assistance and support, including under lockdown measures, can be a life-line. Many workers and small business-owners will need immediate support to help them protect livelihoods. 

Let me cite two examples. The clothing giant H&M has assured its manufacturing suppliers that it will not cancel or seek to re-negotiate existing orders and will take delivery of goods in production. Unilever has committed to helping its most vulnerable small and medium-sized suppliers by extending cash loans.

We need more of this kind of creative thinking as we continue working, throughout this crisis, to protect jobs; protect health; and help people cope with adversity, by investing in community-led resilience and response and assisting vital social protection measures.

I also encourage you to act in the longer term to uphold economic, social, civil and political rights in the broader societies in which you operate and distribute products. Investors are already asking what CEOs are doing to protect their wider ecosystems of staff, customers and suppliers. There is a growing view that responsible businesses may be better placed to weather the immediate health crisis, as well as the economic downturn ahead.

Demonstrating respect for human rights, especially in times of uncertainty and economic hardship, is a strong reflection of a business' core values. Humane, clear-sighted and impactful measures that protect employees and communities, and help them weather challenges, will pay long-term dividends in business reputations.

We cannot afford to leave anyone behind. If we have learned anything from COVID-19, it is that nobody, and no entity, is an isolated unit. We are bound together – and we benefit from each other.

I want also to emphasize that this response to the pandemic must be global. We also cannot afford to leave any country behind. If developing countries, with the least capacity to contain the pandemic, become repositories for the virus, driving new waves of contagion, that would be a human rights disaster and an economic disaster.

One day, the streets, skies and shipping lanes will fill again, but the world will be changed. How businesses respond to the crisis will shape their own futures as functioning entities, and it will contribute to shaping the future of millions of people – your direct employees, and many others.

 Preventing, mitigating and addressing the damage being done to human rights will be key to maintaining trust – with clients and consumers, your employees, your shareholders and your communities. It will be key to building a world of greater resilience.

I look forward to this discussion.