As countries take immediate action to protect the health of their citizens, all of us—including business—must ensure it does not come at the long-term expense of human rights. While emergency action by governments in the face of this crisis is necessary, fears have arisen that immediate measures linked to the use of emergency powers are stifling citizens’ rights to speak out and freely organize. There’s also concern that these temporary restrictions might become permanent as the pandemic has no confirmed end date.
While lockdown measures in many countries have curtailed freedoms to contain the spread of the virus, too many governments have put in place extreme measures, which have curtailed human and labor rights under the guise of responding to a health crisis.
In Brazil, a presidential order is restricting access to public information and encouraging spread of misinformation. In Hungary, rule by decree is threatening key democratic processes. In India labor laws are under attack. In the US, states are enacting laws to criminalize protests against fossil fuels. In many countries, digital surveillance efforts place citizens’ privacy under threat. In China, researchers are unable to share information freely and medical professionals have been criminalized for attempting to do so.
Given these measures, one of the key questions for the private sector should be: what will a world with less free speech and freedom of assembly mean for business?
Countries implementing these restrictions and lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 must do so based on urgency of crisis, act transparently and declare these new measures time-bound and subject to period review. If they don’t, we will only see negative outcomes for people and for our economies. Rebuilding economies with fewer human and labor rights will mean worsened operating environments for companies. Markets will remain unstable. Workers will remain in unsafe, unsure or unpaid conditions. Legislative systems will be weakened by lack of accountability mechanisms and increased corruption risk.
We can avoid this scenario. Companies depend on the protection of these fundamental rights to create a society where business can thrive—and need to stand up for these rights. With global supply chains disrupted, factories shut down, workers unpaid and unemployment growing at a staggering rate, the importance of freedom of association is being brought more into focus. This right, and many others, make the workforce and businesses stronger.
Given these measures, one of the key questions for the private sector should be: what will a world with less free speech and freedom of assembly mean for business?"
Now, more than ever, is also a time to protect trade unions and civil society’s ability to conduct their work. Both are on the frontlines of global response efforts, yet are facing restrictive laws, lack of access to funding and inability to organize. Some civil society leaders that have taken action or spoken out, especially around unsafe conditions for key workers, have been met with retaliation and threats. And, as organizing has gone digital, protecting freedom of expression and privacy rights online has become even more difficult.
For business, now is the time to deepen partnerships with trade unions and civil society organizations. Trade unions and civil society often act as the “canary in the coal mine” for companies. With personal and direct access to workers restricted, business needs on-the-ground insights and coordination to protect workers and respond to risks in real-time.
At The B Team, we’ve seen an uptick in companies interested in space for dialogue with civil society and human rights defenders through our co-coordination of the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders. Additionally, many companies and investors are starting to speak out about the need for governments to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence for the private sector. These rules would be critical to securing the safety and well-being of workers and communities. And in a world which will see ongoing waves of COVID-19 outbreaks, these disclosures should become the new norm for business.
Companies have both a responsibility and an opportunity to factor fundamental rights into their immediate crisis response—protecting their workers and communities and speaking out when they can. They must also look to the long-term—developing new corporate policies as needed and advocating for global recovery efforts that secure the human rights of all people.
An inclusive economy, one that secures the well-being of people and planet, requires a citizenry that can speak out, ask questions and hold institutions accountable."
As we recover from the first wave of this crisis, we need to reset, not just restart, our societal systems. We need to move toward an equitable and inclusive economy with a new social contract. And we need strong trade unions and civil society to ensure these new systems are informed by a diverse set of stakeholders. Protecting and enhancing human and labor rights, in turn, will be reflected in the health of the new economy.
An inclusive economy, one that secures the well-being of people and planet, requires a citizenry that can speak out, ask questions and hold institutions accountable. We will not halt climate change without a movement comprised of activists and civil society. We will not prevent corruption from seeping into already stretched government coffers without strong advocacy. We will not see workers and businesses rebuilding the global economy together, with purpose, without a new social contract. And we will not see rich partnerships between grassroots organizations and companies to foster social licenses to operate in communities.
This moment is a test of our global solidarity in committing to a world that works for everyone. When people’s fundamental rights are protected, business has a better chance of contributing to a thriving society. As we build back better, let’s do so on the necessary and strong foundation of an enabling environment, for companies and people, that truly leaves no one behind.