A Human Rights-Based Approach to COVID-19 Decision-Making

June 11, 2020
  • Ouida Chichester portrait

    Ouida Chichester

    Director, Energy, Extractives, Transport, and Industrials, BSR

  • Rosa Kusbiantoro portrait

    Rosa Kusbiantoro

    Director, Transformation, BSR

  • Salah Husseini portrait

    Salah Husseini

    Director, Human Rights, BSR

  • Jenny Vaughan portrait

    Jenny Vaughan

    Managing Director, Human Rights, BSR

  • Francesca Manta portrait

    Francesca Manta

    Director, Membership and Human Rights, BSR

Every action and decision that companies and governments alike make in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to impose significant human rights impacts on employees, supply chains, customers, and communities around the world.

The impacts of both the pandemic and the swift decisions leaders are having to make to address the risks carried by the virus affect different stakeholders in distinct ways, with vulnerable populations bearing the brunt of not only the virus itself, but the economic consequences as well. Because of this, many human rights organizations, such as the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), have issued statements urging governments and companies to take into consideration the specific needs of rightsholders, particularly vulnerable populations, when developing responses to COVID-19.

Beyond identifying and understanding the impacts of the pandemic on particular populations, companies face additional challenges based on their unique operating circumstances. Indeed, the crisis is playing out in very different ways across sectors, industries, and geographies. For some, COVID-19 has introduced an opportunity to more deeply integrate and embed their platforms and services as the world shifts into a new operating paradigm. For others, the pandemic presents an existential crisis that has severely impacted the business models and long-term viability of entire sectors—from travel and tourism to retail and hospitality, and many more.

To address the diverse impacts and potential approaches companies may face in this crisis, particularly as industries adjust to a new “normal” for the long term, BSR has developed three primers on how to respect human rights during the COVID-19 crisis: one for the energy and extractives sector, one for the food, beverage, and agriculture sector, and one for the transportation and logistics sector.

Regardless of how COVID-19 may affect these three sectors and others differently, a human rights-based approach means understanding how the decisions a company makes in response to COVID-19 impact its own employees, contractors, and supply chain workers and seeking to minimize or eliminate any adverse impacts to the greatest extent possible. While the primers focus on three specific sectors, the approach they outline for thinking through how the pandemic may impact human rights can be applied across industries. Furthermore, the risks highlighted in these three sectors present a range of risks that illustrate of the types of issues many other sectors may face—from protecting employee privacy concerns once testing and tracing is implemented to weighing a balance between communal needs and employee health and safety.

How such decisions are made may impact the following rights, which the primers explore in more detail:

  • The right to a safe and healthy work environment, due to heightened risk of contracting the virus in the workplace
  • The rights to work and to an adequate standard of living, due to layoffs, furloughs, or shutdowns, particularly in countries where unemployment benefits such as medical coverage or paycheck protection are limited or nonexistent
  • The right to privacy, as employers and local governments implement preventative measures to test, track, and trace

In some cases, companies—especially those providing essential services—will have to balance the rights of their employees against those of their customers and local communities. This will require a thoughtful, human rights-based stakeholder engagement approach, weighing the impacts on the various stakeholders and including them in this process.

While these primers are not meant to cover every potential human rights issue emerging from COVID-19 across all sectors, we hope they offer companies enough guidance to be able to address any challenge that may emerge through a human rights lens. If you would like to know more about how to ensure respect for human rights in your company’s pandemic response, please get in touch.


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