OPINION: Companies and investors need to prioritise human rights long after the pandemic

by Pauliina Murphy and Talya Swissa | World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA)
Thursday, 27 May 2021 07:00 GMT

Food delivery riders take part in a street protest ride organized by the group "Los Deliveristas Unidos" demanding better working conditions, pay and protections in Times Square in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., April 21, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated deep-rooted inequalities felt by workers around the world. But we have an opportunity to address the shortcomings of our current system

Pauliina Murphy is Engagement Director and Talya Swissa is Research Project Manager at the World Benchmarking Alliance, a movement to measure and incentivise businesses towards a sustainable future

The COVID-19 pandemic has had impacts on the private sector and financial markets around the world. However, these impacts have been felt very differently by workers.

According to the International Labour Organization, major apparel brands cancelled or postponed orders, risking the livelihoods of millions of women garment workers in their supply chains, while agricultural product and food retail companies were put under pressure to prevent a food crisis and guarantee food security, with workers put at extra risk of exposure to infection.

For investors concerned with environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, the social implications of the pandemic highlight the need to look beyond financial returns and address risks to people present in investment value chains to influence better societal outcomes.

In order to respect the human rights rights of workers, any economic measure taken in response to the crisis should be subject to a careful assessment of its social implications.

To identify how companies responded to increased human risks and impacts associated with the coronavirus crisis, the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB), part of the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), decided to conduct a study looking into the commitments and practices of 229 of the largest global companies across five sectors

Our findings show that most companies have failed so far to demonstrate a meaningful response to the crisis, and adequately limit negative impacts on workers. Less than 10% explained in disclosures how they considered the risks of COVID-19 within their own operations and supply chains.

Only 6% consulted with workers’ representatives, communities and vulnerable groups such as women, migrant workers, disadvantaged racial or ethnic groups and persons with underlying health conditions, meaning that the majority of companies did not have conversations with their workers or trade unions, among other stakeholders, when identifying and assessing COVID-19 risks and impacts.

Nevertheless, there are some positive examples of companies taking steps to ensure that the rights of workers were respected, within their own operations and as well as their supply chains.

Responsible purchasing practices 

Companies such as Marks & Spencer stood out from the rest when it came to purchasing decisions, indicating that it paid for all shipped products before production was temporarily halted, as well as for all produced garments that could not be shipped. The retail company also mentioned that it facilitates the distribution of emergency relief funds and supports safe working conditions in factories where manufacturing continues. 

British groceries retailer Tesco also committed to using fabric that their suppliers had already purchased for orders, and honoured original payment terms instead of asking for discounts. 

Respecting workers’ livelihoods

Other companies demonstrated efforts to respect workers’ livelihoods during the crisis. Hormel Foods indicated that they’ve been in constant contact with suppliers to ensure they have the same high standards and practices in place for their employees, including paid sick leave and benefits if they are feeling unwell or test positive to the virus.

Tesco stated that self-isolating workers are being paid in full for the period of isolation and that vulnerable workers, including people who were pregnant or over the age of 70 were given twelve-weeks’ paid leave immediately.

Through these good practices, companies are demonstrating that, even in times of crisis, they can behave in a responsible way, fulfilling their human rights obligations and meeting stakeholder expectations. They also provide best practice examples for their peers to emulate. Crucially, by placing human rights at the heart of their response to the crisis, these companies expose the shortcomings of those who have not, so far, been doing enough.

What can be done to ensure respect for human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond?

The pandemic didn’t create an entirely new set of risks and impacts for workers and communities; it exacerbated issues that have existed for a long time, many of which are deep-rooted and systemic.  It has also made them more visible, emphasising the need to put people centre stage.

Companies should, and as the examples above show, can, place human rights at the heart of their response. Companies have a responsibility to respect the rights of workers and other stakeholders at all times. Fulfilling this responsibility is more essential than ever in the present climate, especially where the most vulnerable workers and communities are concerned.

We now have an opportunity to address the shortcomings of our current system.  

Taking a human rights-based approach and focusing our attention on those suffering most and what can be done about it, is not only key to the immediate crisis response; it’s crucial if we want to recover and build back better. 

This opinion piece is part of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s work, Amplifying the "S" in ESG, which aims to promote wide adoption of social criteria in investment strategies.