The global coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and creating new ones.

Times of crisis affect the most vulnerable in our society in distinct ways. A person is vulnerable because they have less agency or choice, or their particular characteristics mean that they will disproportionately experience the impact of harm.

For people who are already vulnerable, their particular characteristics such as age, socio-economic status, availability of healthcare options or even access to clean water make them susceptible to the spread of disease. For others, unprecedented changes and restrictions on economic activity created by the coronavirus pandemic are rendering them jobless or removing the agency that they have in their employment relationship.

Typically the workers with the most precarious labour rights are the first to be impacted. Casual and contract workers who are already afforded few if any social protections face a significant risk of harm.

Job losses have commenced worldwide, and vulnerable workers are being asked to work under conditions imposed to meet onerous requests for supply. We know that the existing vulnerabilities of workers in supply chains who may already face dangerous and unsafe working conditions are being exacerbated.

This creates cascading challenges, impacting basic human rights including food security and shelter. Others are at risk because of the attendant spikes that trauma and stress produce in gender-based violence and other types of harm. Isolation negatively impacts mental health and wellbeing.

At this juncture, taking a people-centred approach to your decision-making can help you to make sense of vulnerabilities and prioritise actions which will mitigate harm.

Right now, risks that you might have historically been comfortable labelling as non-financial are likely to intersect closely with your financial decisions. Risk professionals who typically seek to understand risks to business must now more than ever put people at the centre of their considerations. This aligns with the business responsibility to respect human rights, but it also is part of the social or moral agreement our political leaders are making with us right now.

A human rights approach provides a practical way you can respond and prepare to thrive in the rebuilding we will need to do beyond the crisis.

The critical role of business in addressing vulnerability

In this context, businesses have a critical role to play in ensuring a people-centred approach in their decision-making to appropriately prevent, mitigate and remediate harm.

Understanding vulnerability and listening to it enables a rights-respecting approach that is mutually beneficial. For example, for Australian businesses existing plans to respond to the modern slavery legislation can provide a useful platform from which to understand and address the vulnerabilities created by the current coronavirus crisis.

Responding effectively to vulnerable workers involves understanding the types of exploitative labour practices and breaches of human rights that give rise to situations where modern slavery flourishes. This allows businesses to prevent or address high risk situations early before they escalate to the severity of modern slavery.

Businesses can draw on their existing supplier management programs to engage with and support their suppliers. Crucially, businesses will need to be diligent to avoid contributing to toxic buying practices that place disproportionate pressure on suppliers and workers.

At this time of crisis, a human rights approach provides businesses with a clear framework through which to understand and address risks and harm to people.

Five key steps to support businesses to identify and address vulnerability

1. Define vulnerability

You will need to take a principles-based approach to understanding and defining vulnerability in the coronavirus crisis context. Refresh your understanding of what vulnerability looks like and who is vulnerable, guided by the following principles:

  • People with protected attributes/characteristics may experience greater adverse harm.
  • Vulnerability is heightened by intersecting characteristics.
  • Vulnerability is context specific, and changing contexts may shift who is vulnerable.

2. Put risk to people at the centre of your risk considerations as you make critical business decisions

Many businesses face existential decisions right now and the analysis by boards and executives of the current risks to business will be the natural starting point for these conversations.

However, by understanding the risk to people and the impact on people of these decisions, you will be able to plan for and mitigate potential harm with that insight. This can also build trust with your own people and stakeholders as they see a values-based approach guiding the actions you take.

3. Identify where vulnerable people might be in your operations and supply chain

You may have previously undertaken work to identify vulnerable people or developed particular monitoring or equity programs to protect, support and encourage those who might otherwise be excluded or experience harm. In the coronavirus crisis context you either need to refresh that analysis or commence this identification and assessment process. Use the principles which define vulnerability as the criteria to guide your identification of potential at-risk people or cohorts.

4. Listen to vulnerable people to understand impact

Once you’ve identified who is vulnerable it is time to listen. Vulnerable people are often more vulnerable because they are not visible to decision-makers. Our current physical isolation exacerbates that dimension and will require intentional engagement to ensure that you are able to gather the qualitative data you need to understand actual or potential harm. Boards have long been criticised for failing to listen to vulnerable customers, workers and communities in their consideration of non-financial risk.

The coronavirus crisis introduces a new urgency to ensuring that you’ve created appropriate and regular listening mechanisms and that this is shaping your decisions on how to prevent or mitigate impact.

5. Respond to risk or harm, making decisions for now and for the future

Our crisis responses are generally different to the way we approach rebuild and business-as-usual phases. In that respect, the coronavirus response will require the same dexterity.

However, there are things which you may need to do now, that will require urgent and considered reflection as we progress through to new stages with new norms. For example, at this juncture, it is wise to maintain core responsible supply chain management as your procurement comes under stress. Being proactive with the identification and assessment of risks relating to vulnerable people is a tactical procurement response with strategic implications for surety of supply, meeting reporting obligations and managing community expectations.

In the rebuild phase, businesses that can demonstrate social impact credibility will be better placed to meet the multiple objectives communities will need to achieve.

We’re all in this together, but some need us more

It is well established that as both economic and social actors, businesses thrive in rights-respecting contexts. Credible ways of maintaining trust, especially in times of crisis, include appropriately addressing and remediating harm. Fulfilling the corporate responsibility to respect human rights by identifying and addressing vulnerability unlocks a collective benefit. At a time of collective need and collective sacrifice, a people-centred approach to business decision-making based on clear human rights frameworks is more important than ever.

Most of us are feeling vulnerable right now, but this is a practical way you can respond to those who need us most and prepare to thrive in the rebuilding we will need to do beyond the coronavirus crisis.

What does a human rights approach look like in the coronavirus (COVID-19) context?

Leading businesses are already taking a human rights approach to addressing labour-related challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, including taking targeted measures to assist supply chain workers who are most at risk of negative impacts. We are aware that senior decision-makers are continuing to put human rights on the agenda in board rooms, re-designing existing controls that offer assurance over high-risk activities, and aligning the wellbeing of their people with their coronavirus responses.

Creating spaces for listening to your most vulnerable stakeholders will give you essential data and provide you with the information you need to mitigate and remediate harm in a rapidly changing context.

How do I take a human rights approach?

  • Identify human rights risks and impacts.
  • Prioritise severe human rights risks and impacts.
  • Mitigate risk (including by involving existing management functions).
  • Remediate impacts transparently and equitably.
  • Embed human rights due diligence throughout the business as an ongoing process rather than a one-off evaluation.


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