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Building back better: Integrating human rights into COVID-19 measures

Guidance for companies

Across the world, COVID-19 continues to threaten the economic security of workers and the ability of businesses to keep operating. It also presents new challenges and opportunities for businesses to respect human rights.

Respecting human rights can be challenging in situations like a pandemic where numerous, and at times, conflicting human rights need to be considered. To guide Canadian companies, we have developed factsheets to help identify how responses to COVID-19 can impact human rights negatively in the context of business operations, and options that prevent, mitigate, and account for identified impacts.

These factsheets are based on United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGP) on Business and Human Rights and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which were developed to reflect international human rights obligations. When companies are developing initiatives and measures to contain COVID-19 and to allow for business continuity, they need to consider human rights risks and adopt a gender-responsive approach--one that consider the particular needs of and challenges faced by historically marginalized groups, including Indigenous Peoples, women, girls, and LGBTQI persons of various intersecting identities such as ethnicity and race.

What are human rights?

Human rights are basic rights and freedoms that everyone is born with. They are:

  • Universal: everyone is entitled to them regardless of their ethnicity, race, gender, age, nationality, language, religion, or any other status;
  • Inalienable: they cannot be given or taken away;
  • Indivisible: there isn’t a hierarchy to rights and they are all equally important; and
  • Interrelated: respect for one right contributes to respect for others.Footnote 1

Human rights are protected by governments through national laws, international human rights treaties, and labour conventions.Footnote 2 Company policies and COVID-19 measures should, at a minimum, respect international obligations enshrined in the International Bill of Rights.

Negative human rights impacts are not gender-neutral. Women and girls experience different barriers in claiming their rights and gender intersects with other forms of discrimination to increase risks of experiencing negative human rights impacts due to pre-existing inequalities. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child should also be taken into account when developing company policies to prevent adverse human rights impacts and address barriers women and children face when accessing remediation.

Other forms of discrimination intersecting with gender
  • Age
  • Colour
  • Caste
  • Class
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Literacy
  • Access to economic resources
  • Marital Status
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender Identity
  • Disability
  • Residence in a rural location, and Migration
  • Indigenous or Minority Status.

Examples of how COVID-19 & response measures may impact human rights

Some company responses to COVID-19 developments and government policies implemented to contain the infectious disease have infringed on human rights and impacted certain communities more than others. In addition, a number of ongoing human rights concerns have worsened or have been neglected in the context of COVID-19 as company responses focus on COVID-19.

We have identified some examples of human rights concerns that have emerged in the context of COVID-19, and what companies can do to avoid or mitigate them.

How to identify and mitigate negative human rights impacts:

Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, wherever they do business.

Human rights due diligence involves identifying and mitigating actual and potential negative adverse impacts on people, the environment, and society that businesses cause, contribute to or are linked to. These impacts are outward facing risks rather than inward facing risks that affect a business’ operations, reputation, financial or market.

In order to identify and mitigate actual and potential human rights impacts, it is important to think about:

  • Who are the particular communities or individuals whose rights may be affected; GBA+
  • What are these human rights impacts;
  • Why these impacts are occurring; and
  • How these impacts can be prevented, mitigated, and accounted for.

Additional resources

Key sources to help identify relevant human rights impacts associated with COVID-19 and help guide the development of measures to address them include:


Discrimination

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Everyone has the right to be treated equally and without discrimination at work.Footnote 3 Companies are responsible for ensuring that COVID-related measures are clear, consistent, do not favour or exclude workers on the basis of characteristics (e.g. ethnicity, race, gender, age, health status, etc.), and accommodate their diverse needs.Footnote 4

Violations of human rights include the following:

Violations of human rights include the following:

Measures to ensure human rights are protected:

Communicate clear policies and practices regarding non-harassment to workers, their representatives, contractors and suppliers, monitor the workplace and respond quickly and effectively to allegations of harassment, sexual harassment and gender-based violence.


Slavery, forced labour

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Nobody should be forced to work against their will (e.g. through violence, blackmail, debt bondage, confiscation of identity papers).Footnote 5 Companies need to ensure that the context of work does not constitute forced labour within the company and by contractors/suppliers.

Measures that are illegal and ill-advised:

Measures to protect against slavery and forced labour:

Ensure that the needs of underserved workers are accommodated at work including COVID-related measures, and urge local governments to provide for the welfare of underserved individuals.


Just and favourable pay and work conditions

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Everyone has the right to fair pay and a safe and healthy work environment.Footnote 6 Companies need to ensure safe working conditions for workers, ensure that overtime hours are not excessive, that workers are appropriately compensated and are treated with dignity.Footnote 7

Unjust measures include:

Measures that protect workers include:


Freedom of assembly, expression, information

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Despite the challenges that COVID-19 poses for gatherings, it is important that worker engagement and information disclosure activities continue during the pandemic. Everyone has the right to assemble peacefully, the right to express their opinion, and the right to seek and receive information. Lack of transparency, and repression of assembly and expression are ongoing human rights concerns associated with business activities. Companies need to respect workers' rights to form unions, associate, express concerns, and/or organize strikes. Measures that limit movement and gatherings must be justified, necessary, proportionate, and time-limited.Footnote 8 Companies also need to continue to respect stakeholder rights to express concerns and to participate in decisions that affect them.Footnote 9

Measures that violate human rights:

Measure to protect human rights freedom of assembly, expression and information:


Privacy

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Everyone has the right to privacy.Footnote 10 Companies need to ensure that any COVID-related measures taken do not infringe on the privacy of workers or other stakeholders. Companies also need to ensure that private information of workers is handled appropriately.Footnote 11

Measures that restrict privacy:

Measures to protect privacy:


Health, environment, livelihoods

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Everyone has the right to life, health, an adequate standard of living, and the right to own property.Footnote 12 An ongoing human rights concern associated with business activities is the potential for adverse environmental or health effects that may infringe on the human rights of workers or stakeholders. Companies should continue ongoing due diligence activities in this regard and ensure that new or previously identified issues are not ignored because of COVID-19.Footnote 13 

Measures that restrict the rights of workers:

Measures that protect the rights of workers:


Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

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Most countries in the world, including Canada, have endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which highlights the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples. In addition to commitment to uphold UNDRIP and internationally recognized human rights, Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination, culture, and consultation are also protected through various international human rights instruments.Footnote 14 Inadequate respect for these rights has been an ongoing human rights concern associated with business activities, one that may be heightened during the pandemic. Companies need to ensure that these rights continue to be respected.Footnote 15 

Measures that restrict Indigenous Peoples’ rights:

Measures that protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights:


Gender equality and the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI persons

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There is widespread recognition that COVID-19 has disproportionate impacts on underserved individuals, including women, girls, and LGBTQI persons, due to historically rooted inequalities, and that the pandemic threatens to roll back the hard-won global gains made in gender equality and human development. Impacts of the virus include more barriers for women and girls, and LGBTQI persons, who may also be migrant workers and belong to ethnic minorities, in being able to claim their rights. It is the responsibility of companies to identify these barriers to assess and mitigate adverse human rights impacts for the most underserved. Note: The term “woman” refers to transwomen as well.

Measures that violate women’s rights:

Measures to protect women’s rights:


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