Human Rights and Modern Slavery during a pandemic

Respecting Human Rights and addressing Modern Slavery during a global pandemic

Our world has been, and will continue to be, restructured by the global pandemic of COVID-19. As operations and supply chains are being re-organised, those who are most vulnerable are having their human rights impacted the most. Businesses exposed under the reporting requirement of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cwth) have been encouraged by the Australian Border Force to account for how COVID-19 has impacted their operations and supply chain and in turn their risk of modern slavery practices. Its important companies consider the implications of COVID-19 not just in their Modern Slavery Statements, but in their broader human rights approach.

When companies consider modern slavery risk, and broader human rights risk, they should use the outward-facing concept of “risk to people”, rather than “risk to business.” This means accounting for how the impacts of COVID-19 may increase the vulnerability of an impact on workers, customers, and other potentially affected stakeholders. However, as key cases have demonstrated, the “risk to people” and “risk to business” can and do intersect. For example, organisations that have failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep their employees safe, face reputational and litigious damage. In their duty to respect human rights, companies are faced with some difficult scenarios.

Below are some examples of how COVID-19 heightens negative human rights risks to people in a company’s own operations and supply chain and act to protect affected people. Suggested ways to improve your human rights and modern slavery management approach are also provided.

Own Operations – Employees

  • Occupational health and safety:

The Victorian Government recently reported that 70-80 per cent of healthcare workers infected with COVID-19 during the state’s second wave of infections caught it at work. There have also been numerous cases of workers in Australia being forced to work without adequate PPE.

  • Excessive overtime hours:

There have been cases of excessive overtime hours of workers during the pandemic, in particular for front line workers and workers that are involved in the manufacturing of PPE. Further, in many circumstances the lay-off of workers has increased the work-load of workers with continued employment.

  • Accessibility and inclusion:

While many Australians and workers around the world are encouraged to work from home, existing socio-economic disparities are not taken into consideration. There have been reports that remote working worsens inequality by mostly helping high-income earners, finding that the higher the persons salary, the more likely they are able to work from home. Further, the viability of the option of working from home is dependent on socio-economic factors (such as availability of space, access to internet) and caring responsibilities.

  • Discrimination and harassment:

COVID-19 has exacerbated discrimination against Asian Australians. The Australian Human Rights Commission reporting that about one in four people who lodged racial discrimination complaints in February and March said they were targeted due to COVID-19.

  • Fair wages:

In August 2020, unemployment in Australia climbed to 7.5%. With growth in the unemployment rate comes a greater ability for worker exploitation. This is particularly the case for migrant workers who are not eligible for government benefits.

Own operations – Customers and Stakeholders

  • Access to food, water and sanitation:

It is vital to ensure that companies that provide essential services to the community can continue to operate, with protections in place to protect the health and safety of customers, workers and suppliers.

  • Protect vulnerable customers:

During this time, it is vital that vulnerable customers can secure access to essential services, without compromising their health. The supermarket retailers creating opening hours for seniors, people with disabilities and for healthcare providers demonstrates the innovative process, and iterative learning.

  • Continuation of community engagement:

Community and engagement and consultation must not go to the wayside because of the challenges posed by a global pandemic. For example, extractive organisations that have community and indigenous consultation for planning approvals are still required to continue with their consultation.

Supply Chain

  • Procurement restructuring heightening Risk of Adverse Human Rights Impacts in the Supply Chain:

Companies should ensure that their own practices do not exacerbate the risks of adverse human rights impacts in their own supply chain. Delaying paying back suppliers, terminating pre-order requests and giving short notice requirements are all examples of behaviours that have direct impacts on workers on the ground. For example, there have been many instances of apparel labels cancelling orders from their suppliers due to decreased demand in COVID-19.

  • Changes to existing due diligence within the Supply Chain:

Many organisations are securing services and goods from new suppliers to match the restructuring of their operations and other previously unforeseen product demand – for example, the requirement for more PPE. However, due diligence on the supplier’s labour protections and standards must continue to be conducted on new and existing suppliers. Although the appropriateness on on-the-ground audits may be lessened, there are alternative routes (including surveys and video-audits) which can continue during this time. Considering the heightened geographic, product and service risk should also inform your purchasing decisions.

  • Migrant workers in the Supply Chain:

Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. There have been many circumstances of migrant workers losing their jobs and becoming stranded due to being unable to return home.

Improving your human rights and modern slavery management approach

  • Integration into current processes and systems:

Ensure that if you are taking steps to identify modern slavery/human rights risks in your own operations or supply chain, that the impacts of COVID-19 are considered. The economic and social impacts of COVID-19 may have increased human rights risks in some parts of its operations and supply chains and make sure you understand these changing risk profiles.

  • Understand your impacts:

Make sure you understand how COVID-19 has impacted and affected groups of people differently. This includes considering the gendered, socio-economic or racial impacts of COVID-19. This could be as simple as considering whether the PPE that you have purchased fits women.

  • Deciding changes:

Before taking action, consider how your decisions may have a negative impact on workers. For example, understand the potential impacts of and try to prevent the delay of payments to own employees and suppliers, the early termination of contract orders and placing short notice requirements on suppliers.

  • Making changes:

If difficult decisions and actions must be taken, ensure to collaborate with governments and civil society organisations to ensure that protections are in place and essential services are provided. Businesses should ensure measures implemented are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application.

  • Communicating changes:

In deciding and communicating changes in their own operation and supply chain, new processes and procedures must be clearly shared – so to be understood by all workers, including migrant workers. This may require communicating through different, accessible methods and languages.

  • Collaboration:

Collaboration is key to building back better. Companies should ensure that their partnerships and engagement with Civil Society, Trade Unions, State and local government continue and are strengthened.

  • Integrate learnings and provide remedy:

Ensure that you provide a remedy for any adverse human rights impacts you have caused or contributed to – even if these were created in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Effective remedy also means that you learn from your mistakes and ensure that you prevent any further adverse human rights impacts in the future.

This article was written by Nina Haysler, Manager in Human Rights & Strategy.