Posted: 08 May 2020 15 min min. read

COVID-19: Confronting the human rights impacts of pandemics

COVID-19 and the global economic shift has left workers, customers and communities more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Australian, global and social media have been full of news and opinions reporting concerns of:

  • Workers terminated without any or enough social security, including in global supply chains[1]
  • Privacy concerns following increases in surveillance and data collection[2],
  • Xenophobic and racist attacks against people of Chinese and Asian backgrounds[3]
  • 'Gig economy’ jobs becoming central to economic activity without complementary labour rights and decent working condition protection[4]
  • Healthcare professionals treating cases without appropriate personal protective equipment[5]
  • People diagnosed with COVID-19 and medical professionals experiencing stigma and intimidation[6]
  • Fear of the health and social impacts of COVID-19 will have on Indigenous communities[7] and
  • Tenants worried about rental property eviction during or after the pandemic[8]

The Australian public will hold both government and business accountable for their crisis responses. Now is the time to consider decisions that meet human rights standards and expectations. The UN Guiding Principles (‘UNGP’) on Business & Human Rights require government to protect human rights and business to respect them even during times of crisis.

We have identified three generalized response stages that our clients will experience throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Protecting and respecting human rights in different and increasingly systematic ways is crucial in all stages.

Stage 1: Respond
In the immediate response to COVID-19, we are overwhelmed with health information, rapidly evolving government measures and fundamental changes to daily life. Business as usual is no longer an option.

In the ACT, Queensland and Victoria, human rights laws require the public sector to make decisions that are compatible with human rights.  While these laws do not bind the Commonwealth or the other States and will only bind businesses if they fulfil public functions, this approach of giving proper consideration to human rights when making decisions is a useful way for these organisations to protect and respect human rights.

Businesses have often reacted sensibly to these developments. Valuing the personal impacts of COVID-19, they have provided flexible work arrangements that enable physical distancing and parenting responsibilities, preserving employment to the greatest extent, and offering counselling support for mental well-being of their staff including dealing with discrimination. Conversely, some companies have reacted less generously, from cancelling contracts to forcing payments. These types of actions have threatened vulnerable groups and decision-makers have faced public scrutiny. 

As the pandemic continues, society needs assurance that organisations will act responsibly. By adopting a human rights-based approach to decision-making in the Respond Stage, government and business can identify a wider range of rights and meet their requirements in line with Australian and international human rights law.

The human rights that might be relevant for decision-making in this stage given the possible abuse and exploitation mentioned above include:

  • Freedom from forced work (modern slavery)
  • Right to access health services 
  • Non-discrimination 
  • Right to liberty and security of person
  • Protection of families and children 
  • Indigenous rights 
  • Right to privacy and freedom of expression, and 
  • Right to housing.

Stage 2: Recover
Navigating the unpredictable terrain of a health and economic crisis, our clients will be looking to keep existing business and customers, in addition to identifying new opportunities for growth.

With large shifts in global supply chains and operations, there is an enhanced modern slavery risk. The Australian business community cannot neglect its obligation to combat modern slavery. 

The Recover Stage is the moment for government and business to begin preparation for compliance with the Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 (which for many Australian entities means submitting their first modern slavery statement by December 2020), and to conduct UNGP gap analysis to understand broader human rights impacts fully in operations and supply chains and implement appropriate responses.

Stage 3: Thrive
2020 and 2021 will be years of transformation for many organisations, and this emerging ‘new normal’ will come with a higher expectation for sustainable rights-based practices. Sectors that have faced a high degree of public scrutiny over recent years now have the opportunity to consider their reputation. The coming months provide an opening to realign business practice with relevant human rights frameworks.

In this Thrive Stage, Australian government and business should be aiming to reduce or eliminate modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains, and normalize human rights within their corporate culture. Specifically, they can:

  • Integrate modern slavery risk identification, update risk frameworks, policies and procedures and supplier engagement to better support the Modern Slavery Act objectives,
  • Introduce human rights policy, due diligence and grievance mechanisms in line with the UNGPs recommendations, and
  • Identify business opportunities and innovations that help address human rights abuses.

Human rights can be further introduced into sustainability strategies and Environmental, Social and Governance criteria for even more robust responsible business and investment approaches. Also considering how increased use of technology and new ways of working will be an important human rights issues.

Deloitte’s National Human Rights Practice stands ready to assist government and business clients to identify their human rights obligations and expectations, explore business opportunities that advance human rights and establish policies and procedures and make decisions that uphold human rights.



Leeora Black, Matthew Coghlan & Scott Penton

More about author

Victoria Whitaker

Victoria Whitaker

Partner, Risk Advisory

Victoria is a partner in Risk Advisory and leads the responsible business practice. Victoria’s work focuses on developing ethical corporations, with strong cultures who build trust with external stakeholders. Victoria brings 19 years of expertise in ethics, cultural integrity, and corporate responsibility. Throughout her career, Victoria has helped organisations in Australia and globally understand and address ethical challenges, minimise risks, maintain trust with stakeholders, and reduce social and environmental impacts. Practically, Victoria lead’s the firm practices in ethics, risk culture and human rights services portfolios. Victoria’s consulting and commercial experience has seen her lead multi-disciplinary teams predominantly servicing financial services, energy & resources, and government, amongst other sectors.