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COVID-19: American Late Capitalism Confronts Business and Human Rights

In the United States, COVID-19 has thrown the brutality of late capitalism into sharp relief. Billionaires donate a tiny fraction of their wealth while cities offer homeless people a demarcated parking lot so they can practice social distancing while sleeping on the pavement.

While we confront how little our social contract of cheap goods and low taxes has bought us at home, the virus has exposed American exceptionalism for all of its hubris and Hollywood hucksterism. We are the only industrialized nation without universal healthcare coverage; 30 million people are uninsured (more than the entire population of Australia). No national law requires paid sick leave, or hazard pay. Before the federal coronavirus aid package, unemployment insurance was left up to individual states, most of which have weekly benefit amounts that are not near enough to feed and house a family. Gig workers are classified as independent contractors and have no labor protections at all.

In short, Americans are terrifyingly vulnerable to decisions made by the businesses that write our paychecks and lobby our lawmakers. Precarity has come to the fore as Instacart shoppers, fast food workers, grocery store checkers, and warehouse employees wage strikes and lodge protests over meager pay and inadequate safety measures. Hospitals lack essential protective equipment, as do farmworkers, who face crowded and unsanitary conditions for poverty wages.

These issues are at the forefront of business and human rights, but are rarely discussed in those terms in the United States. Put simply, the business and human rights framework recognizes that business enterprises share universal responsibility to respect human rights, which exists over and above national laws and regulations. Its baseline expectations, set forth in the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, direct companies to know the impacts of their activities, avoid human rights violations, and address their potential or actual adverse impacts on human rights. These rights include (but are not limited to) basic concepts of human dignity: the right not to be subjected to slavery, servitude or forced labor, the right to privacy, the right to enjoy just and favorable conditions of work, the right to an adequate standard of living. These corporate responsibilities are independent of individual governments’ ability or willingness to fulfill their duty to protect human rights. They apply everywhere, regardless of the ravages of conflict, corruption or corporate lobbying efforts.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfurls across the globe, disrupting supply chains and threatening the workers who keep them going, businesses’ power to inflict suffering is percolating through our national consciousness. Suddenly facing shortages—empty shelves that once held toilet paper and pantry staples—Americans are waking up about supply chains; that most of global trade is driven by big business exploiting cheap labor from workers increasingly unprotected in the face of ever-harsher market forces.  Every day brings new headlines:

The global reach of the COVID-19 crisis shows that business and human rights matters for all workers–from Tetley tea plantations in Assam to Amazon warehouses in New York.

The U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, however, are merely voluntary. This past fall, the Business Roundtable released its own voluntary statement of principles, signed by 181 CEOs, recognizing that corporations bear responsibilities beyond making profits for shareholders, that extend to their customers, employees, suppliers and communities. The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare how far American big business is from meeting this mark—and how workers at home and around the world suffer because of it. Yet the U.S. government has refused to participate in efforts to pass a binding treaty on business and human rights, in keeping with its long resistance to enforceable economic and social rights.

When the world emerges from sickness and death, isolation and disruption, my hope is that Americans will have arrived at a new moral clarity that calls out the evils of corporate power and human poverty. That we build business models that value human rights and environmental stewardship. That we take up the banner of business and human rights, in solidarity, in recognition of our shared humanity, and in service of a new economic vision that places people, not profits, at its center.

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