Sedex guidance on COVID-19
The role of business in addressing COVID-19 and its impacts
The world is experiencing a global pandemic that is affecting countries, people and businesses. Businesses must take a human rights-centred approach in response to the crisis and recovery; they have a responsibility to protect workers in their business and supply chain, particularly where governments have the inability to do so.
Business have a responsibility to keep people safe. Safety in the context of COVID-19 includes both health and economic safety:
- Worker health – keeping workers safe from COVID-19. In many workplaces, close contact with others at work (or in worker accommodation) is normal and action must be taken to implement protective measures and ensure decent, safe work while workers remain in employment.
- Worker income – protecting workers from the economic impacts of COVID-19. For many, poverty is a more urgent threat to life and health than the virus itself. Health measures can negatively impact income if economic safety is not accounted for.
The situation is changing rapidly and the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 will continue to spread, with severity increasing in countries with less resource and ability to manage the impacts. The millions of workers involved in supply chains and informal work will be significantly affected. The ILO estimates that up to 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide and 6.7% of working hours will be wiped out by June 2020, equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. 75% of people in least developed countries lack access to soap and water to maintain hygiene to help prevent the virus, and 55% per cent of the global population does not have access to social protection. 
The economic impacts are expected to far exceed the 2008 global financial crisis. The sectors most at risk include accommodation and food services, manufacturing, retail, and business and administrative activities.
The United Nation Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are more relevant now than ever. The UNGPs make clear that the primary responsibility for protecting human rights lies with the State – to protect its people and economies against the shock of the pandemic. This includes providing safety measures for the population, income security for those whose jobs or livelihoods have been disrupted, healthcare and social security.
However, not all governments have the ability to provide this safety net, particularly in more challenging contexts where many low wage suppliers are located. This means millions of people in low skill and low wage jobs are vulnerable to having no money to feed themselves and their families.
While it is not the role of business to plug the gap in state support, the UNGPs state that the private sector’s role is to take responsibility for respecting human rights and for addressing the impacts that they may cause or contribute to. Many millions of people in global supply chains rely on businesses’ continued support to continue to provide jobs, pay their workers and weather the crisis.
It is critical for global lives and livelihoods that companies honour their responsibility to both their employees and people in their supply chains.
 ILO Standards and COVID-19 (coronavirus) FAQ: Key provisions of international labour standards relevant to the evolving COVID-19 outbreak