Providing remedy for individuals harmed as a consequence of company decisions and actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a critical avenue for addressing not just this moment, but also the deeper inequalities that make our society vulnerable to crisis and for building resilience in the future.
COVID-19 has aggravated existing inequalities, with rapidly changing business operating environments requiring fast decision-making based on often imperfect information. There is little doubt that some company decisions will have caused harm to employees, local residents, or customers. Companies will be held to account and asked to rectify these harms and to fulfill their duties to provide access to remedy, a fundamental pillar of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
The UNGPs outline the duty of the state, which is to protect human rights, and the responsibility of business, which is to respect human rights. The third pillar of the UNGPs is the requirement to provide individuals whose rights are harmed by business with access to remedy. Effective remedy has five recognized forms of reparation, which include a broad range of measures aimed at repairing the harm caused to survivors and victims: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition.
Access to remedy is the least developed and least well-understood and practiced pillar of the UNGPs and one that deserves more attention in general and should not be forgotten or overlooked during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially now as we move into new phases in our response to the pandemic. To ensure access to remedy during all phases of the COVID-19 crisis, companies should:
- Continue to ensure access to appropriate, independent, and effective grievance mechanisms, including dedicated hotlines, email addresses, instant messaging systems or applications, and letters and other written communication, to the extent possible, during all phases of the pandemic. Some companies will have to think creatively about how to ensure access to legitimate grievance mechanisms, with an understanding that many of the good practices that require face-to-face contact will have to be modified during this time. For all companies, it is important to ensure access to grievance mechanisms to enable reporting of non-compliance with safety measures and guidelines which have been adopted to protect people from COVID-19, not only for isolated communities and marginalized groups, but also for employees and contractors.
- For companies with large footprints, special considerations are needed for those located in isolated or remote communities. Communities with limited access to communications channels, communities which may be economically marginalized or have lower levels of literacy, or indigenous communities often have a greater dependence on person-to-person engagements to lodge complaints or submit grievances. Companies will have to think creatively about how to ensure access to legitimate grievance mechanisms during the global pandemic, with an understanding that many of the good practices that require face-to-face contact will have to be modified during this time and for some time in the future. It may be necessary, for example, to partner with trusted local organizations, like grocery stores and their suppliers, who have legitimate access to communities to gather and deliver grievances.
- Companies that rely on human moderators to review online content flagged for violating human rights and company policies should continue to prioritize reported content that has the greatest potential to harm when dealing with limited content moderator capacity while also ensuring that the data are preserved for future analysis with appropriate privacy controls in place. These companies should also increase their investment in mental health support and resources for their content moderators, both to ensure their well-being and to adapt to the increased burden of harmful content that may result as a consequence of this global crisis.
- Companies can avoid causing potential human rights-related grievances through their response to COVID-19 by conducting rapid human rights assessments and other due diligence before making decisions that could negatively impact human rights. This is especially important when rapid decisions are being made in the midst of a crisis, especially one like COVID-19 with potential human rights impacts. For example, companies can ensure responsible disengagement from supplier contracts during the pandemic by conducting rapid human rights assessments. If cancellation of supplier contracts is legal and absolutely necessary (after evaluating all possible options for alternatives), start by formulating a responsible exit strategy in consultation with potentially impacted rightsholders. For instance, ensure that workers and suppliers receive ongoing compensation for the duration of the unemployment or offer trainings and financial capacity building (microcredit) to mitigate loss of employment for workers and other people living in surrounding communities.
- As much as possible, continue with any efforts underway to remediate past harms that the company has caused or contributed to before the pandemic. If appropriate, use company’s leverage to push business partners to do the same.
- As the COVID-19 situation improves, conduct a post-crisis assessment to ensure that all grievances are lodged and assess if and how people have been impacted by company action (or inaction) during the pandemic. Companies will and should be held to account for their actions during the pandemic. Responsible companies will acknowledge harms and provide remedy.
While many restrictions remain in place and extreme caution is still needed, this is a moment when companies should start examining their approaches, both past and current, and ensure they are accountable for their actions. Failure to remedy past harms is not just counter to international standards outlined in the UNGPs—it can also destabilize the business environment whether due to social unrest or increased vulnerability to crisis.