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COVID-19: State and business respect for human rights critical to resilience and recovery, say UN experts

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GENEVA (28 April 2020): Governments and business must prioritise the wellbeing and rights of all in society, and particularly vulnerable workers, as they try to keep firms and economies afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of UN experts said.

In a statement issued today, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights said the global health and economic crisis is an unprecedented test for governments and businesses not to lower human rights standards and urged them not to cut corners in the push for economic growth. It is vital to protect workers who are most vulnerable to abuse and loss of livelihood.

“The workers who sew our masks in factories, who staff essential services and transport, and who farm the land, or care for the sick, amidst the crisis, are essential to our survival,” said the Working Group’s Vice-Chair, Anita Ramasastry.

“Yet, they are often the ones most vulnerable and at-risk of human rights abuses – often on temporary or abusive contracts, with low wages and few or no safety nets, and exposed to health and safety risks,” she stressed.

“As governments scramble to extend a financial lifeline to struggling businesses, any financial support or bailouts should come with a clear requirement – to commit to respect human rights and dignity of people,” Ramasastry said.

Companies have an independent responsibility to treat all with dignity and respect human rights and must ensure the health and safety of workers during the health crisis. Guarantees, such as paid sick leave and providing safety gear and equipment, are fundamental.

“Companies should also assess the impacts of business decisions and activities on workers in their supply chains and expect the same from their business partners and suppliers. While masks may be disposable, workers are not,” the expert said.

The Working Group said the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights already offer guidance for government and business responses during COVID-19. The three pillars of the Guiding Principles – “Protect, Respect and Remedy” – provide a globally agreed baseline for conduct both during the ongoing crisis and for a post-COVID-19 world.

“The pandemic will eventually pass. States and business actors must use this moment to not revert to business as usual, but to forge a new normal of business respect for human rights, based upon the globally agreed standard provided by the Guiding Principles,” Ramasastry said.

ENDS

The UN Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (known as the Working Group on Business and Human Rights) was established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011 to promote worldwide dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It is composed of five independent experts, of balanced geographical representation. Its current members are: Mr. Githu Muigai (Chairperson), Ms. Anita Ramasastry (Vice-Chairperson); Mr. Surya Deva, Ms. Elżbieta Karska, and Mr. Dante Pesce,

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights , unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 (resolution 17/4), provide the authoritative global standard for action to safeguard human rights in a business context, clarifying what is expected of governments and companies to prevent and address impacts on human rights arising from business activity.

The Working Group is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

For further information and media requests, please contact Graham Fox (+41 22 917 9640 / gfox@ohchr.org) or write to wg-business@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact Xabier Celaya (+41 22 917 9445 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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