The numbers are difficult to comprehend. Over 1.5 million deaths; close to 70 million people infected; 90 million people projected to fall into absolute poverty; 400 million jobs lost.

The cost of the Covid-19 pandemic on people’s human rights is still being established, with spikes in household poverty, domestic violence and labour abuses just some of the repercussions.

Humanising human rights

We took numerous measures to protect those at high risk at the outset of the pandemic, including offering €500 million in cash flow relief for our suppliers and providing hygiene products to the most vulnerable communities.

Today, with positive news on vaccines and attention turning to the future, what role can business play in a rights-based economic recovery?

One thing is certain: our determination to build back better and to make the world a fairer, more inclusive place is stronger than ever.

“Helping strengthen our resolve is the universal nature of Covid-19,” says Marcela Manubens, Head of Integrated Social Sustainability. Statistics are no longer statistics, she adds, when you have a neighbour who has lost her job or a child who’s missed out on schooling.

“The pandemic has shown the importance of fundamental human rights, and it’s also redoubled our belief that respecting people’s rights is crucial to inclusive business,” she says.

Building back safer

Those hardest hit are those who were most vulnerable to start with, and so it’s these groups where our efforts are particularly focused.

One such focus issue is women’s safety. During the pandemic, reports of domestic abuse shot up during national lockdowns. This introduced additional risks into poorly managed workplaces where women are already vulnerable to abuse, harassment and discrimination.

Our response has been twofold. On the one hand, we’ve taken steps to address immediate concerns in the communities where we operate. On the other, we’ve been working on longer-term resolutions by engaging with our suppliers and their communities.

Safety for women and girls

The Safety for Women and Girls programme in tea is a good example of this twin policy in action. We rolled out a holistic gender-rights framework (PDF | 7MB) developed in conjunction with UN Women. This is modelled on best-practice approaches that we successfully piloted on our tea estates in Kenya.

Conversations with our suppliers and people in the community were key to shaping the framework. But, most importantly, it was shaped by hearing from the women themselves on what they needed to feel safe.

“The women and men in Assam have been really appreciative, which I think relates in part to the attention the pandemic has given to workers’ safety in general,” says Marcela.

Women comprise the majority of the more than 2 million people working in India’s tea industry. And so early in the crisis, Hindustan Lever (HUL) worked with UNICEF to keep tea-pickers safe and healthy, with their efforts including the distribution of essential sanitation products.

Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, Representative for UNICEF India, spoke of the work: “With HUL’s support, we are confident of improving awareness levels and capacity-building of healthcare workers across tea estates, helping them fight this pandemic.”

Fair work for all

The economic slowdown resulting from Covid-19 has also highlighted the risk to migrant workers – many of whom pay high fees for jobs that are often badly paid and sometimes even coercive.

Where such recruitment fees exist, we share the call from the Consumer Goods Forum, the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment and others that employers, not job applicants, should pick up these fees. This employer pays principle is reiterated in our own Responsible Sourcing Policy (PDF | 9MB).

Given the heightened risks to migrant workers’ rights during the pandemic, we used our annual Statement on Modern Slavery (PDF | 5MB) back in March to re-emphasise to all suppliers our absolute zero tolerance for people trafficking or any form of coercive labour.

We have followed this up with an ongoing programme of training and information-sharing for suppliers, with a particular focus on those in high-risk countries. This work aligns with our efforts to strengthen public policy on these issues through dialogue with civil society leaders and government authorities.

Wages and job security are another contentious area brought to light by the pandemic. We believe a living wage is essential to a sustainable business model, which is why we launched the fair living wage ambition in 2015 as part of our Sustainable Living Plan.

To reassure our people at a time of huge anxiety and uncertainty, we also put a freeze on any changes to pay or employment conditions in the initial months after Covid-19 first hit.

“Knowing that our jobs were secure for three months gave us all a huge peace of mind. It created a great atmosphere. A real ‘all for one, and one for all’ feeling,” Marcela recalls.

Feeling inspired?

Human rights are universal. At Unilever, we read this as a twofold truth. Firstly, the principles of life, freedom, equality and all the other basic tenets of humanity belong to everyone. Secondly, everyone has a part to play in ensuring these tenets are met.

Are you inspired to join us? If so, here are three suggestions from the UN’s Recover Better campaign:

  1. Listen to all sides: The everyday decisions of individuals and organisations can potentially have knock-on impacts on the human rights of others. Listening closely to the voices of others, especially vulnerable communities, can flag these up – and present alternatives.
  2. Promote inclusivity: Everyone can help build a system free of inequality and discrimination, from governments and large organisations to individual citizens. Big or small, every action makes a difference. For inspiration, check out our Take Action Hub .
  3. Encourage others to join: Promoting human rights isn’t someone else’s job; it’s everyone’s. Joining with others to raise awareness is a great way of putting the ‘universal’ into universal human rights.

Human rights are ultimately about people, not numbers. Standing up for human rights, therefore, starts with each of us. And, ultimately, it’s about standing in solidarity with others. What’s proved true for the pandemic must prove equally true for the recovery.

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