Human rights work during Covid-19

Keeping Human Rights on-track during the Covid-19 pandemic

Elaine Mitchel-Hill, Business and Human Rights Lead at Marshalls plc
Wednesday 14th October, 2020

Elaine Mitchel-Hill, Business & Human Rights Lead at Marshalls looks at why there may never be another time like this to improve human rights, and why she believes anything is possible.

I know from continually speaking with my peers across sectors throughout the pandemic that many have struggled with the fact that the human rights of some were 'placed to one side' while other more 'business critical' issues took centre stage on the board table. Whilst I fully acknowledge that if you don't have a viable business, then you don't have a business that can work hard to protect and support human rights, there is an undeniable reality that for a good number of businesses the human rights of those down their supply chain was secondary, or off the radar completely, compared to the rights of the humans directly employed.

I know big business to be ultra-smart and easily capable of considering both the impact on and response to those directly employed as well as those throughout its supply chain, but they can only do this from a point of knowledge and understanding. If this evades them, for whatever reason, then they cannot factor this into the survival mix in a meaningful way. For the cynical among us the varied responses we've seen, both on our own doorstep in the UK and overseas, could lead to the conclusion that the private sector is quick to say the right things and make the right noises, but without taking the actions necessary to follow through. It is here that investors have the power to engage more actively and create added momentum, rather than to just walk away.

Covid-19 is the mother of all acid tests for human rights in all respects, none more so than in supply chains. For those committed to preventing modern slavery, as opposed to simply complying with the law, these are challenging times, but also a rare opportunity to expertly and relentlessly seek to weave human rights throughout the fabric of their organisation. There may never be another time like this to act. Everything is different and anything is possible.

The current crisis and the difficulties it presents in getting out into the supply chain, or undertaking audits of one kind or another, cannot be used as an excuse for any of us to give up ground that we have gained since the introduction of the MSA. It is also a time to look at the shortcomings or limitations of internal processes and procedures and to redesign; to build back better, if you will. I see this as a ‘golden time'. With my feet firmly planted on the ground, and with no overseas travel in sight, I have the time and space and the speed - offered by people being available and at the other end of my computer on one platform or another - to move at lightning pace that in the pre-Covid world seemed impossible.

The window of opportunity to systematically reform purchasing practices and underlying business models, to promote sustainable production and livelihoods is here for each of us. This includes reasonable deadlines and planning, fair payment schedules, and fully-costed pricing in order to enable suppliers to eliminate any irresponsible outsourcing and pay workers the living wage. benefits and social protections. Grass roots activity to identify and prevent the risk of forced labour in supply chains. The expanding of whistleblowing channels in high risk supply chains. New ways of carrying out targeted inspections of working conditions in sectors at high risk of labour exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Harnessing technology to improve supply chain visibility and invite new perspectives from different stakeholders. Engaging in new data sharing platforms which lift the veil on the extent of the issues and offer up insights and information that hold the potential to allow us all to be more effective in our efforts. Ensuring that workers are supported in accessing information and protective measures, support and redress. Drawing on the long-term relationships with partners across the globe to share, to learn and to redouble efforts. In short, businesses must not use any financial losses incurred during the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse for labour exploitation and forced labour and must renew efforts.

The trajectory of global modern slavery legislation, developments in UK environmental legislation, together with the incoming EU mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence (mHRDD) law in 2021 will all demand that businesses ‘…ensure respect for the rights of humans, who should not be sacrificed for the sake or company profits and the accumulation of wealth.’*

While in a post-Brexit world it is currently unclear what this will mean from a UK Government perspective, businesses with operations, supply and demand chains across Europe already see the implications. What is also clear is that this time and place is a watershed for human rights.


*Extract to consider the Human Rights Due Diligence Legislation-Options for the EU

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