Business and Human Rights in a Time of Crisis

May 26, 2020

At this time of crisis, public expectations for responsible business are amplified. People are stepping up and defining “business purpose” for themselves. Today, they demand that business provide their frontline workers with access to health care and personal protective equipment.

Perched along the high banks of the Ohio River in the United States, is a town named New Richmond where a café sits proudly amidst a row of elegant but decaying 19th century buildings. This restaurant, opened 15 years ago by my parents has attracted crowds from the neighboring city of Cincinnati providing jobs and revenue for a population that has long suffered from economic marginalization. Today, under the long shadow cast by COVID-19, the café is fallen deathly quiet save for the banter attending to a few takeaway orders. The staff has been furloughed. The music has stopped.

Though New Richmond is a world away from my current home in Bangkok, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Thailand’s restaurant industry is surprisingly similar. On a small side street, I find my favorite Thai bistro mostly shuttered at midday. A young waiter is selling pre-made meals in plastic containers on a table outside. Chairs and tables are marked with X’s to keep people from eating too closely together. Business is not brisk.

COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the lives of people across continents and oceans, though in various degrees. Some have tragically lost their lives, or watched loved ones pass away. Others have lost their livelihoods or seen their life’s savings disappear. I am one of the lucky ones, healthy and employed, at least for now. As a specialist working for UNDP’s Business and Human Rights in Asia programme, I help to promote responsible business practices through policy promotion efforts aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Lately, I have been working overtime with my team to articulate what responsible business looks like in a time of crisis.

As a result of our labors, we have created an assessment tool that maps 48 actions that businesses should take to ensure that their responses and recovery plans are compliant with international human rights standards. A number of organizations, including business associations, have taken it upon themselves to translate the assessment into local languages. Three multinational enterprises have written to UNDP to inform us that they are using the tool or sharing it with their partners and suppliers.

I consider emailing the C19 Self-Assessment to my dad in Ohio to get his views as a small business owner. Will he think our work is irrelevant or impractical? Or will it stoke some thinking about the way he runs his business in a time of crisis? I click send and then write a text to warn him of the provocative attachment in his inbox.

Notwithstanding my father’s opinion, our C19 Self-Assessment is riding a wave of a much larger trend. Even before the pandemic erupted public expectations were growing stronger that businesses must play a more positive role in society. This trend has been induced by the impact of carbon emissions on our climate, frustration over growing levels of inequality and anger over the findings of forced labor in global supply chains. In August of 2019, CEO members of the influential Business Roundtable seemed to acknowledge the darkening tone of public sentiment.  Making international headlines, they issued a Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation  stressing the importance their companies place on stakeholder value and inclusive economies. These commitments, however sincere they were at the time they were drafted, now seem rather quaint.

At this time of crisis, public expectations for responsible business are amplified. People are stepping up and defining “business purpose” for themselves. Today, they demand that business provide their frontline workers with access to health care and personal protective equipment. The public is asking for paid sick leave for gig economy and informal workers. In other corners, people are raising concerns over privacy rights, and the liabilities of businesses that sell health tracking technologies to authoritarian governments. Consumer activists are also raising awareness of the purchasing practices by large multinational enterprises. In particular, rights advocates are calling out fast-fashion giants for their recent backsliding on contractual agreements with suppliers in the Global South.

In this context, there is an opportunity for a Business and Human Rights (BHR) specialists like me to issue more strongly worded messaging while demanding more responsible business behavior. There is a good case for us to leverage our roles in the UN and in other organizations, to point out shortcomings and increase the pressure significantly. But there is worry too that the pandemic’s impact on economies—bankruptcies, stalled investments, redundancies at all levels—might provoke in government and business circles, a willful indifference to our rhetoric, or even a backlash against the BHR agenda. There is a very real risk that not tempering our language will bring to an end the healthy dialogue that has been growing between civil society and the private sector on human rights risks and impacts.

My father responds to my email 12 hours later. He writes, “Sean, I commend you and your colleagues for developing this comprehensive check list of actions to be taken to help weather the storm and come out of this stronger than before the pandemic struck.” He then goes on to offer his own approaches without reference to the C19 Self-Assessment. These include, “Respecting our staff and taking their advice on the best way forward; communicating frequently with local and state government and; strengthening our commitment to our community including our churches by providing hands on assistance and monetary contributions to help them help others.” Though his list does not ring of international human rights duties and obligations, they are still familiar: stakeholder dialogue and engagement, and awareness of the needs of the most vulnerable.

My trepidation in reaching out to my dad—or to any small business owner here in Bangkok—with the C19 Self-Assessment has dissipated after our exchange. But that does not lay to rest many other related questions. Namely, do have the right language and tools as BHR practitioners to address responsible business issues in times of crisis? How do we convince governments and businesses to “build back better” when we ourselves do not fully comprehend the trade-offs that might be required to get industries back on their feet? These questions and others will only become more urgent in the years to come if climate change induced disasters increase in frequency, as expected.

The way in which BHR practitioners adapt or modify their language (if indeed that is called for) may also require a re-assessment of the other capacities we take for granted. Are we lacking in any cross-disciplinary knowledge that will help us address future crisis? Have we been good enough at sharing the right kind of resources and information, at the right time?

In June 2021, the UNGPs will celebrate its 10th anniversary. This milestone will offer our community of practitioners an opportunity to reflect more formally on the questions posed above.  Before then, UNDP will co-organize the Virtual-Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum with ILO, UN ESCAP, UNICEF, and UN Women. Here too, the discussions will likely be shaped by the undercurrent of uncertainty posed by COVID-19. Will new trade agreements have the teeth required to enforce labor and environmental sustainability clauses when unemployment rates are so high? How successfully will we be in pushing for mandatory human rights due diligence, when margins are already so low? Indeed, what will be the consequences, intended or otherwise, of pushing hard and fast in the time of COVID-19?