Covid-19, business, human rights and the environment

ARTICLE | 8 April 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely exacerbated existing human rights and environmental challenges related to business activities and threatens to undermine existing and expected achievements toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Those living in poverty and in vulnerable situations are at greatest risk. It is imperative that collaboration across stakeholders and national boundaries continues to work toward the common goal to “leave no one behind”.  

As millions are losing their jobs and entire communities are at risk, some states are seizing the opportunity to further close civic space or to roll back environmental commitments. The role of business in respecting and promoting sustainable economic, social and environmental development has never been more important.

As well as being responsible for working conditions, company activities – including their responses to the pandemic – may impact on rights such as access to food and water, physical security and the rights of women and children. Their actions have a direct bearing on biodiversity and the environment, which are critical to the right to health, sanitation and life.

Swedwatch continues to support efforts to mitigate negative impacts from unfair global supply chains and irresponsible management of natural resources on people and the planet, and to promote business practices that respect human rights and the environment during this crisis and beyond. The negative impacts of sudden divestment or cessation of business operations, for example, are more palpable and global now than ever before – negatively impacting not only company workers, but also subcontractors, entire communities, and smallholders dependent on selling products for their livelihoods. Effective and on-going human rights due diligence is of particular importance in these cases, as noted in previous Swedwatch reports on business impacts in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

As part of these efforts, Swedwatch is tracking the changing risks landscape in close dialogue with project partners and rights holders. This briefing provides initial findings and some examples of how the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting business, human rights and the environment (BHRE) in the global south in five thematic areas: supply chains, climate and environment, civic space and peacebuilding, and food security.

SUPPLY CHAINS

The pandemic has starkly illustrated the vulnerability of workers in global supply chains to economic shocks and the need for businesses to act responsibly to avoid negative human rights impacts, not least in countries lacking basic social security.

Widespread lockdowns have caused companies to cancel orders, effectively closing factories and putting hundreds of thousands of workers in the global south out of jobs, leaving many with no income at short notice. A world bank report on the impact of Covid-19 in East Asia and the Pacific projected that a further 11 million people could fall below the poverty in the region by the end of 2020.

Women garment workers unpaid

Women garment workers – and their extended families who often rely on remittances – are at particular risk when factories close, amid reports of severance pay not being respected. Since the outbreak, in Bangladesh alone, western retailers have cancelled or suspended an estimated $3.04 bn in orders, affecting more than two million workers.

According to one survey, more than 80 percent of Bangladeshi workers that were made redundant did not receive severance pay. A majority of furloughed workers also did not receive any compensation, despite many brands having responsible exit policies. However, some buyers, including Swedish fashion retailer H&M, have publicly committed to paying for existing orders.

Awaj Foundation, which promotes garment workers’ rights, said that a majority of workers have yet to receive their March pay packets.

“The factory owners are claiming that they do not have money to clear the wages …. Many brands have already cancelled, held or postponed their orders, which led to the closure of many factories which have laid off workers,” Awaj General Secretary Nazma Akter told Swedwatch.

She added that for those workers who still have jobs, social distancing is not an option.

As the workers are yet to get their salary, meeting the basic needs for the family is becoming very difficult. They are spending their time in crowded residential areas where social distancing is an impossible concept,” she said.

“Brands should ensure with their business partners and factory owners that the workers get their salaries on time. They must do their human rights due diligence at this time to minimise negative impacts in all levels of their supply chains… There should be binding international regulations which hold brands accountable and impose large fines to those who do not fulfil their responsibilities.”

Agricultural workers lack protection

According to Peruvian human rights organisation Comisión de Derechos Humanos de Ica (CODEHICA), workers in the country’s southern Ica valley have been threatened with dismissal if they fail to show up for work, even if they feel ill or belong to a high-risk group.

“There is not enough protection for the workers. They sometimes have to drink water from the same glasses when they are in the fields,” CODEHICA director Gustavo Echegaray told Swedwatch.

In Ecuador, the labour rights organisation Asociación Sindical de Trabajadores Agrícolas y Campesinos (ASTAC), reports a lack of protective measures in the banana sector. Many workers in plantations producing bananas for export have no social security coverage and little access to adequate health care. ASTAC reports that many workers lack adequate protective gear and work excessively long hours.

Agricultural workers often live in extended families with very young and elderly in the same household, often staying in poor and crowded conditions which can exacerbate the risk of the virus spreading throughout the community.

“Companies purchasing Ecuadorian bananas should put pressure on their suppliers to protect agricultural workers including providing adequate protective gear and offering decent working hours. They should also pay a fair price for our bananas,” ASTAC’s women’s coordinator Maricela Guzman told Swedwatch.

Procurement of protective equipment

The surge in demand for medical gloves for healthcare workers is placing increasing pressure on factories in Malaysia which is the world’s top supplier of medical gloves.

Malaysia’s glove manufacturing sector has been marked by reports of forced labour, with migrant workers from Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and other countries recruited by agencies, demanding excessive recruitment fees. As workers take out loans to meet the fees, they often become severely indebted and are sometimes forced to sell land or other assets to raise the money. This situation effectively puts them in debt bondage, a form of forced labour.

Migrant workers manufacturing gloves generally work 12 hour shifts for low pay and lack access to social security. If they become sick, they have no income. Insufficient health and safety measures and confiscation of passports by employers have also been reported.

Since Malaysian authorities imposed restrictions on people’s movement to inhibit the spread of the virus, glove factories have only been able to use 50 percent of their labour force. However, at the end of March the European Union delegation in Malaysia wrote to the government expressing the EU’s concern about the impact the restrictions would have on the country’s medical glove exports, calling on Malaysia to “take the necessary measures to ensure adequate production and supply of medical gloves. This could indeed include creative options such as 24/7 production or using the skilled task force in a number of venues.”

Following the letter from the EU delegation and similar reports of demands from the US, Malaysia’s rubber gloves industry association was reportedly allowed to operate with a full labour force.

“It is a relatively dehumanising statement to talk about ‘creative options with a 24/7 production’,” Andy Hall, an expert and independent consultant on migrant workers’ issues told Swedwatch.

“We need more gloves, but we also need to protect the glove workers making those gloves. The EU knows the dire situation of systemic forced labour in the Malaysian gloves sector very well, and as such should encourage these suppliers and buyers of gloves to ensure that workers are respected and work under better conditions.”

According to Hall, there are indications that working hours have also increased with some workers reporting working days of up to 16 hours, in some cases with no weekly day off.

Swedwatch recommendations

  • Governments should identify adequate ways to protect workers and local communities from contracting and spreading the infection through public health messaging and by providing furloughed workers with financial support.
  • Companies should assess potential negative impacts on workers before suspending or shutting down business operations. Develop plans to mitigate negative impacts on workers and rights-holders.
  • Producers, suppliers and buyers along the medical equipment supply chain must ensure that migrant workers’ rights are respected.
  • Contracting public authorities should include social criteria when procuring protective equipment and together with governments, buyers and suppliers ensure that labour standards are withheld.

CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of society and the economy, including how the world deals with climate change and the challenge of mitigating climate impacts.

Lock-down strategies and similar measures to contain the spread of the virus have led to a temporary but significant reduction of greenhouse gases emissions, and improvements in local air quality. Transportation, industrial activity and power generation are the sectors for which emissions have declined most. Analyses have shown that measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in China  have temporarily reduced CO2 emissions by up to 25 per cent in the country during February, largely due to a drop in coal-fired power generation. These short-term reductions can translate into longer term positive climate impacts if mass travel patterns in many domains (business, tourism, commuting) radically change but this cannot be taken for granted.

While reduced travel and economic activity is temporarily curbing greenhouse gas emissions, there is a risk that, in the aftermath of the crisis, countries will turn to relatively available and cheap – but environmentally detrimental – energy sources to quickly re-power their production systems. To boost economic recovery countries may also adopt measures relaxing environmental regulation, as has already occurred in the US and China. National climate targets could lose relevance or policy focus, resulting in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, similar to the rebound following the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Data shows that greenhouse gas emissions in China were already at normal levels in March. It is not far-fetched to assume that, for the same reasons, emissions in OECD countries will quickly rebound after a temporary plunge.

In addition, the use of financial interventions to stimulate economic recovery, together with the loss of revenue for states, could cause difficulties in financing the transition to low carbon and climate resilient production and consumption systems. According to Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, companies facing revenue losses may cancel or delay investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Covid-19 crisis could also reduce the political will to adopt ambitious climate policies and draw the attention of policy-makers away from the climate issue at a time when the public is more concerned about economic recovery. The global climate summit in November has already been postponed, which can be expected to result in the delay of the adoption of crucial national climate targets under the Paris Agreement.

Swedwatch recommendations

  • Businesses should not cut back investments, policies, programmes and goals concerning their environmental and climate impacts.
  • Businesses should engage with policymakers to ensure that environmental regulations are enforced and not relaxed or rolled back, and that climate mitigation policies and goals are not shelved.
  • Policy makers should keep pursuing climate and environmental commitments adopted as part of international agreements and should not roll back environmental regulation or relax policy actions on climate mitigation.
  • Policy makers should ensure that financial stimulus packages are aligned with the climate mitigation goals adopted by the international community.

CIVIC SPACE

The Covid-19 pandemic poses a threat to civic space around the world, placing environmental and human rights defenders at greater risk and preventing them from holding businesses and authorities to account.

Given that governments can be expected to focus heavily on economic recovery once the pandemic is under control, environmental and human rights defenders may face stronger opposition to their efforts to protect the environment and the rights of communities affected by business operations.

Already prior to the pandemic, environmental human rights defenders were frequently perceived and portrayed as anti-development and anti-investment which left them exposed to security risks. As a recent Swedwatch report noted, defenders are increasingly defamed, harassed and killed for protecting labour rights or opposing commercial projects such as mines, dams or plantations that are related to powerful economic and political interests.

Authoritarian lockdowns

Since mid-March, states already experiencing shrinking civic space have introduced new authoritarian measures to silence critics and public debate, citing the need to combat fake news, moves which have been condemned by leading UN human rights experts. Dozens of arrests of government critics, opposition members, and ordinary citizens expressing options online have been reported in Cambodia and Thailand. In Thailand journalists reporting any information about the virus that the government deems to be “false or capable of causing fear in the public” can now face up to five years in prison. Cambodia’s emergency legislation is expected to be rubberstamped by the country’s one party national assembly this week and has been described as an attempt to impose martial law.

In Latin America, several countries have declared states of emergency and restrictions on freedom of movement are putting human rights defenders at greater risk. Death squads in Colombia have reportedly taken advantage of coronavirus lockdowns – which greatly reduce freedom of movement – to murder rural activists. In Iraq which has seen large anti-government demonstrations until recently, even small groups meeting privately indoors have been banned and both China and Russia have stepped up large scale electronic surveillance of citizens.

Across the globe we have seen hundreds of thousands of migrant workers trapped due to sudden lockdowns, taken with virtually no warning, leaving vulnerable groups without access to food and clean water. The sudden announcements, with seemingly no preparation or regard for the welfare of workers living on or close to the poverty line, have been compounded by borders closures and have resulted in humanitarian crises across India, swathes of Africa and southeast Asia.

The role of environmental and human rights defenders as community leaders in a time of crisis can also be undermined by lack of support from authorities.

“People were suddenly no longer allowed to move freely. The South African President announced that people must stay indoors but no information went out to communities like ours,” Nonhle Mbuthuma, co-founder of the Amadiba Crisis Committee in South Africa’s Eastern Cape told Swedwatch.

“There was no protection. How can rural communities get hand sanitizers? And many do not have tap water,” she said, adding that her committee distributed cleaning supplies and masks (required for travel in public transport) and travelled around to inform people on how to protect themselves.

Thomas Mnguni, a community leader and activist with rights group Groundwork in South Africa also complained about the lack of information from local authorities, amid rising food prices and confusion over what government support may be forthcoming:

“Overall, most community members have lost income as a lot of informal business was dependant on the mine employees [many of whom are now unemployed]. Most households are currently struggling to sustain themselves as not only are they without an income, but some do not even have access to water,” he told Swedwatch.

Swedwatch recommendations

  • Lockdowns should be imposed responsibly with respect for human rights put firmly in the centre of plans to contain the pandemic.
  • States should not use the pandemic as a pretext for curbing freedom of speech.
  • States and companies must ensure that environmental and human rights defenders are protected and able to carry out their work safely.

PEACEBUILDING

The closure of many business operations due to Covid-19 is likely to increase social tensions and exacerbate conflict over natural resources. This is a particular concern in countries where peace remains fragile, trust in the state is lacking and the resilience of society is tenuous.

The resource-rich countries of the Mano River region in West Africa, still recovering from civil wars in the early 2000, are at particular risk of re-emerging social conflicts exacerbated by precarious livelihoods. In Liberia, for instance, after a scheduled suspension of rubber purchases in March due to maintenance work, Firestone Liberia – a major employer – has decided to extend the suspension due to the pandemic. This decision directly impacts thousands of local farmers in neighbouring communities whose livelihoods depend on the sale of rubber to the company.

Furthermore, once the initial stage of the pandemic crisis is over, countries rich in natural resources are likely to focus on increased extraction in an attempt to recover from the economic shutdown. Governments are likely to focus on economic growth and foreign direct investment related to natural resources, such as land concessions and large-scale land exploitation, according to Victor Galaz from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. These sectors tend to leave large human rights and environmental footprints, such as extractives and agro­industrial business, with little accountability for environmental or social costs. As Swedwatch has previously highlighted, human rights violations, unequal access to natural resources and socio-economic inequalities can be both the cause and effect of destructive conflict.

Social unrest and rights-based approach to aid

At the end of March, UN Secretary General António Guterres made an impassioned call for a global ceasefire in the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic. While ceasefires may silence guns for a brief moment, the international community must look for ways to sustain any temporary gains toward peace. It is likely that the pandemic will exacerbate existing drivers of conflict due to its possibly disastrous impact on under-resourced health systems, in many conflict-affected settings combined with weak institutions, existing inequalities, and unaddressed human rights grievances.

As a result, it is crucial that humanitarian aid packages by governments, businesses and the development sector alike put in place to support to areas struggling with the crisis are sensitive to local conflicts and employed mindful not to exacerbate underlying tensions. Violence has already erupted in several parts of Africa as police enforce quarantines, despite the humanitarian crisis facing hundreds of thousands of day labourers who are not out of work.

Secondary impacts of Covid-19 measures represent a major risk to the resilience and peacefulness of societies. The pandemic’s implications are especially serious for those caught amid conflict where effects from protective measures, price shocks and repressive police responses could lead to social and political unrest. These risks are compounded by the fact that many conflict-affected societies already exhibit a low level of trust and confidence in the state as a provider. Critical priorities for countries that experienced violent conflict in recent years include ensuring the integrity of local food supply and attention to critical infrastructure while working to overcome pre-existing trust deficits.

Swedwatch recommendations

  • Business should conduct conflict- and gender-sensitive human rights due diligence in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct as part of responsible exit strategies.
  • Governments should adopt legislation on mandatory gender-sensitive human rights due diligence (HRDD), including accountability measures, to ensure that companies conduct HRDD on their operations, value chains and investments, especially in conflict-affected settings.
  • The international community should ensure that aid to states and communities particularly affected by Covid-19 is sensitive to local conflicts and is mindful not to exacerbate underlying tensions.
  • Governments should honour commitments to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, in particular Goal 16 on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

FOOD SECURITY

The spread of Covid-19 and lockdowns around the world are exerting adverse effects on the lives of the poor and vulnerable groups including refugees and migrants, as well as urban workers in the informal economy. The World Food Programme anticipates large food-insecure populations in Africa, especially Angola, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia and South Sudan – which may be on the verge of food crisis – as well as countries in the Middle East including Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Most poor communities lack access to adequate housing to isolate family members, as well as basic necessities including food, running water and access to basic healthcare. For them, the virus can further drive them towards destitution and limit their ability to escape from poverty. A study carried out by Chronic Poverty Advisory Network in 2018 suggest that health shocks such as the current pandemic can drive economically vulnerable groups further into poverty when they need to sell their assets and take out further loans.

In India, already desperate migrant workers stranded in Indian lockdowns have reportedly been selling their possessions, including their mobile phones to buy food. The Indian lockdown has also amplified the vulnerability of women and their families left behind in communities dependent on remittance income from husbands that are now stranded elsewhere without pay and social welfare support.

Compounding the current pandemic swarms of pests are an ongoing threat to food security in some regions. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, locust infestations pose “an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods” in East Africa, Iran and Yemen, which risks spreading further throughout the region.

If the spread of Covid-19 persists, alongside other threats to livelihoods, this will challenge regional economies and communities’ capacity to cope with disasters and will require large scale humanitarian responses from the international community. It must be matched with concerted and robust efforts and collaboration across stakeholder groups and national boundaries to ensure that the SDGs are not deprioritised and that the core of the goals, to “leave no-one behind”, is upheld.