Business should be guided by the principle of duty of care in responding to emergencies like COVID-19

Anna Triponel

April 13, 2020

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) has just released its report: Respecting Human Rights in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The report first delves into the human rights impacts of the crisis, including on more vulnerable individuals such as migrant workers, women and the poor. It then delves into the importance of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in the current context. In particular, the report argues that business should be guided by the principle of duty of care in responding to emergencies like COVID-19.

The report states that companies should have the following as the basis of all policies in emergency situations: be prepared, do no harm and ensure non-discrimination. It then provides detail and examples on the range of measures companies can take in response to the crisis. These fall into the following categories:

  • Improving workplace practices (including by monitoring premises, redesigning the workplace and reviewing wider operations);
  • Protecting and supporting workers (including by protecting workers who do not have the option of working from home, prioritising essential workers and taking steps to ensure some income support for gig economy workers);
  • Dealing with sickness (including by being generous with sick leave and offering psychological support where necessary);
  • Communicating clearly (including by being transparent and consistent);
  • Engaging unions (including by engaging with unionised workers and vulnerable workers who are not unionised);
  • Supporting supply chain responses (including by knowing the supply chain and diversifying suppliers, protecting workers in the supply chain, offering jobs for the newly-unemployed, building capacity of suppliers to make them more resilient, and lobbying host governments to protect workers’ rights);
  • Reassuring customers and users (including by maintaining access, not evicting those in need, offering early access to vulnerable customers, targeting false claims and price gouging, and ensuring online accuracy);
  • Being creative with strengths (including by retooling a plant, offering resources to address the crisis, or donating medical supplies and essential services);
  • Protecting those without full rights (including undocumented people and prisoners); and
  • Working with authorities (including by maintaining consistent dialogue, supporting under-resourced regions and preparing for evacuation, if necessary).

The report concludes by reflecting on some of the building blocks that will be necessary as we look to the future.

“Economies will have to become more resilient. Companies and governments now have an opportunity to explore different ways of producing energy, to protect the planet from the climate crisis and undertake structural and policy changes to move away from business-as usual or operations-as-usual.”                      


Institute for Human Rights and Business, Respecting Human Rights in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Examining Companies’ Responsibilities for Workers and Affected Communities (April 2020)

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