Update on Business & Human Rights During COVID-19

Protecting communities, supporting workers and their families should be Canada’s priority

The global pandemic is a frightening time for humanity. Yet all around us, people are working hard to adapt to our current reality, support one another, protect the vulnerable, and together dream of a better future. In urging all levels of government to respect human rights and protect essential workers and their families, frontline healthcare workers, and communities, we are speaking together with one, unified voice.

People across Canada living in remote, rural and Indigenous communities with lesser access to health services, hospital beds and crucially, ventilators to help the critically ill, are calling on all of us to help them shut down the known pathways of infection into their communities.  They are asking us to help them stay healthy by staying away.

However, in March, the federal and provincial governments issued a lengthy list of essential services including the energy sector, construction and mining. Mines, hydro dam construction, pipeline construction, exploration and energy projects remain operational in many regions of Canada. And people worry that these designated essential services are putting their communities at risk.

Shockingly, many industrial work camps which house hundreds to thousands of workers, remain open, leading rural mayors, Indigenous leaders, and frontline healthcare workers to sound the alarm about the potential for worker to community transmission. While steps have been taken to reduce workforces at some sites, some union leaders in Alberta say it isn’t a matter of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’. For Indigenous peoples and organizations, this is an unacceptable and unnecessary risk.

In April, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador criticized the Quebec government for allowing mining operations to resume, noting the decision to do so without consultation compromises efforts made by Indigenous communities to slow the spread of the virus and ignores the State’s duty to consult. In British Columbia, the BC Building Trades Council called for the scaling down of megaproject construction over health and safety concerns. Construction workers, it noted, often do not have access to washrooms, running water, soap or hand sanitizer at their job sites.

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) has also criticized the decision to deem megaproject construction as essential noting that these activities pose risks to Indigenous communities through inevitable community interactions. The UBCIC has pointed out that, “corporate exceptionalism cannot become a pandemic response strategy for the Governments of BC and Canada.” We could not agree more.

For more information on Amnesty’s call to suspend construction of the Site C dam to protect the human right to health, please read and sign our latest action. 

Extractives projects require workers to spend time together in confined spaces and their living conditions include shared dining, sleeping, exercise and bathing areas. As our friends at MiningWatch Canada point out, social distancing is nearly impossible while working at many of these projects. Fly in-Fly out operations mean that workers are exposed to infection while travelling on planes and through airports, which puts the health of their families, communities and other workers at risk.

To limit the turnover in camps, some companies have implemented longer shift rotations, in some cases moving from two-week rotations to 4 week or longer rotations. However, longer shifts and time away from loved ones can lead to increased exhaustion and stress, higher risk of accidents or lowered immunity, especially for workers with underlying health conditions.

In addition, contract workers hired to drive buses, clean, serve food and provide housekeeping services such as laundry, face exposure risks, yet may not have health care benefits, sick leave or other forms of job security to turn to if they become infected.

While the media have reported a number confirmed cases of infection and quarantine in camp, there is currently no publicly available data on the infection rates at these industrial sites. Canada must make information about transmission and infection rates at industrial sites across the nation transparent so that communities can prepare themselves by taking appropriate precautions.

Canadian companies overseas must not take advantage of the crisis

Companies have been forced to respond quickly to the crisis by adapting their operations to manage health risks, comply with government orders, and manage dramatic economic disruptions. However, despite these challenges, businesses must respect human rights.

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, wherever they operate, “regardless of their size, sector, operational context, ownership and structure.”  They are also required to “identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights.” The fact that human rights obligations of States and responsibilities of companies are clear, however, is not an assurance that they will be upheld. Communities, while vigilant, are constrained by lockdown and other social distancing measures from holding State and corporate actors to account.

Canadian mining companies operate in more than 100 countries around the world. Some States, like Mexico, Honduras, and the Philippines, have suspended mining operations and ordered projects to enter into care and maintenance mode (to prevent underground tunnels from flooding for example). However, other countries have declared mining an essential service, allowing operations to continue, even when stockpiles of minerals are already adequate.

There are troubling reports from frontline human rights defenders that in some cases companies are exploiting lockdown orders and social distancing requirements to push through new permit approvals, even though legally required public participation is impossible during the pandemic.

After Alberta suspended environmental reporting rules and the United States suspended the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of environmental laws, communities are worried that under the guise of economic stimulation, industry lobbyists will successfully pressure governments to further loosen or streamline environmental and consultation processes. Amnesty International and our community partners will be monitoring this in the weeks ahead.

States must not use the crisis as an excuse to roll-back environmental standards on climate, water, or air pollution. Even where standards have been suspended, business’ responsibility to respect human rights remains and exists independently of compliance with national laws and regulations.

What about Canada’s commitments to combat the climate crisis? Should oil companies get bailouts?

In Amnesty’s view, States must not use the economic situation generated by the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to roll-back environmental standards and delay transition towards a zero-carbon future. A massive energy sector bailout using public money could serve to further entrench fossil fuel dependency at a time when the sun is setting on this industry. In order for Canada to remain consistent with its carbon-reduction targets, any assistance to fossil fuel companies should be aimed directly at workers, maintaining current services and be conditioned on meeting Canada’s phase-out timeline. Funds must not go towards energy exploration, expansion, construction or development.

As we look to the future, any Canadian economic recovery package must facilitate a human-rights consistent transition towards renewable energy, favoring social and human rights protections and the right to an adequate standard of living. Canada’s recent announcement that it would put $1.7 billion dollars towards cleaning up orphaned oil and gas wells abandoned by bankrupt companies and keep energy sector workers employed is a step in the right direction. Moving forward, abandoned well clean up funds should be administered through an independent fund with representation from Indigenous peoples, affected landowners and communities.

Further investments in retraining energy workers, retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient, improved and expanded public transportation, local and Indigenous food security, and adaptation to climate heating are not only possible, but necessary.

We are in this together

All of us want the crisis to end soon. And we want to look out for one another until it does. Let’s work together to make sure that communities at risk and all workers are protected and supported. And let’s dream together of the kind of low-carbon, vibrant future we want to have emerging from this global economic and health crisis.