2020 was a global turning point for human rights, 2021 is the time for action

Anna Triponel

December 7, 2020

To mark Human Rights Day 2020, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) released its annual list of ten priority issues in human rights for the coming year. The list reflects the implications of COVID-19 across five key areas: (1) redesigning supply chains; (2) preventing the misuse of COVID-related technology; (3) the crisis of crew change at sea; (4) mass-scale theft of migrant workers’ wages; and (5) uncertainties over the future of the modern workplace. It also points to five issues going beyond the challenges posed by the pandemic: (6) the resurgence of state-imposed forced labour; (7) growing climate-driven migration; (8) race-based discrimination at all levels; (9) increasing divides over business standards in key governance areas; and (10) the need for financing just transitions toward a net-zero world.

Ten priority human rights issues for 2021

1. “Resilience for All: Redesigning Supply Chains for a Pandemic-Altered World.” Buyers, suppliers and workers across all sectors “were unprepared for the catastrophic disruption of shuttered businesses, locked down economies, and global trade on pause due to COVID-19.” Looking forward, it’s clear that companies need to do more to be emergency-ready for massive business disruptions and their harmful effects on workers. As the report puts it, “The lesson of 2020 is that if supply chains are at risk then supply chain workers are at risk. The opportunity of 2021 is to place worker dignity at the centre of supply chain transformation plans.”

2. “Tracking & Tracing: Preventing Misuse of COVID-Related Tech.” New technologies used for contact tracing, digitizing healthcare and data, and research on the spread of COVID helped keep many people safe this year. But at the same time, the large-scale use of these technologies (including by repressive governments and opaque companies) poses serious human rights risks: criminalisation of health care, monitoring and restricting the movement of dissidents, human rights defenders, employees and ethnic minorities, and poor data privacy. In 2021, governments and tech companies will need to reckon with the implications of technology.

3. “Stranded at Sea: Resolving a Humanitarian Crisis.” COVID-19 both disrupted and accelerated supply chains, leaving many seafaring workers stranded on ships and unable to come ashore for fear of spreading the disease. Over 400,000 workers remain stranded, with many working up to months beyond their contracts and others prevented from starting contracts; facing a rise in physical and mental health issues and suicide rates; and being compelled into situations of forced labour. In 2021, IHRB predicts more pressure on governments and companies to examine the rights of seafarers and in the case of buyers, to adjust their purchasing practices.

4. “Wage Theft: Standing Up for Migrant Workers in the COVID Crisis.” According to IHRB, the disruptions caused by the pandemic resulted in serious labour abuses of low-paid workers, especially migrants: “Urgent reports arose throughout 2020 of workers far from home losing jobs, being forced by employers to take unpaid leave or reduced wages, confined in poor living conditions, and given little choice in whether and when to repatriate.” In 2021, “building back better” must include “greater access to justice for migrant workers caught in the continuum of abuse that makes up modern forms of slavery, in particular financial redress for lost wages.”

5. “The Office: Making the New Workplace Work for People.” Remote work, social distancing requirements and workplace health precautions all posed opportunities and challenges for workers in 2020. Moving forward, employers will need to prioritise the health and well-being of their workforces, from promoting mental health, to protecting frontline essential workers, to ensuring support for working parents and vulnerable workers, such as women in abusive relationships.

6. “Forced Labour: Leveraging Against State-Imposed Human Rights Abuse.” 2020 shined a spotlight on the severe human rights violations committed by governments against their populations, including Uyghurs in Xinjiang, cotton workers in Uzbekistan and North Korean labourers in Chinese Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) factories. These abuses are all the more challenging for companies and civil society to address because they are state-sponsored, widespread, and occur in extremely opaque environments. Per IHRB, “The year ahead must see more effective strategies including targeted state-to-state engagement and collaborative partnerships involving all relevant actors.”

7. “Climate Migration: Responding to the Reality of Displaced Communities.” Climate change continued to worsen in 2020, causing flooding, droughts, storms and extreme temperatures. According to IHRB, “At present, 1% of the world is a barely livable hot-zone. By 2070 that portion could go up to 17%,” causing a massive rise in climate-related migration and refugeeism. Governments and companies cannot afford to wait any longer on climate action and in 2021 they must grapple with the urgent human rights impacts caused by climate change, including through policies designed to protect migrants, strengthening climate resilience in urban areas, adapting livelihoods, and—crucially—ensuring a just transition to a net-zero economy.

8. “Race Matters: Addressing Discrimination at All Levels.” In 2020, “[t]he Black Lives Matter movement rose to the top of the global agenda in 2020, as incidents of shocking police brutality in US cities captured worldwide attention, and sparked protests across the US and beyond.” It spurred a new awakening within some leading companies about their role in reinforcing or benefitting from racial inequality, while others failed to act. In 2021, “Companies will need to demonstrate their commitment in 2021 and beyond to redoubling efforts to fight discrimination. That will require more than advocacy messages on sporting logos or redesigning websites. Society at large, around the world, will be watching the extent to which companies make black lives matter.”

9. “Standards Fragmentation: Fighting Against the Divide.” Corporate responsibility standards and regulations continued to proliferate in 2020, marking a positive shift towards increased transparency and accountability. At the same time, however, global trade and political uncertainty are clouding the water for these new rules, especially those based on “power politics as well as regional or ideological blocs in important sectors or contexts.” In the coming year, “[d]efending and strengthening existing international standards relating to business transparency and good governance, including adherence to environmental, labour, and human rights standards, will be a crucial challenge for 2021 in ongoing times of unprecedented change.”

10. “Transition Finance: Maximising the Social Benefits of Net-Zero.” A massive amount of investment (up to $3.5 trillion annually, according to the International Energy Agency) is needed to limit the worst effects of climate change in the next decade. According to the IHRB, the opportunities and interest are there—but need to be accelerated by governments as part of a post-COVID economic recovery. Even more importantly, transition finance cannot occur without protecting human rights. In 2021, “[t]he costs – both financial and human – will be far more significant if just transitions fail to take hold. Financing just transitions will require a mix of levers – public, private, and philanthropic capital, with a mixture of state-led incentives and low-cost financing.”

Read the full report here: IHRB, Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues for 2021 (December 2020)

“On international human rights day, 10th December 2020, IHRB’s annual Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues reflects a tumultuous year of pandemic-driven impacts on nearly every facet of life – from health to the economy, from the workplace to global trade.”                        

Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues for 2021 (December 2020)

You may also be interested in

This week’s latest resources, articles and summaries.