COVID-19 pandemic exposes cost of MENA governments’ lack of human rights standards for businesses

The Middle East and North Africa continues to stand out as a region with repeated and serious abuses of human rights. We are on the cusp of the 10th anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring, which erupted with such blazing hope for change among the next generation. In the years since, Egypt has sunk back into the grip of a totalitarian military regime. The monarchy in Saudi Arabia has become even more bold in its strangulation of dissent. Syria, Yemen and Libya are engaged in vicious, incessant conflicts in which foreign governments vie for power. And Israel has seized the opportunity of the region’s instability to further expand its control over Palestinians.

Now, the double whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices is exacerbating the region’s dismal record in human rights—including growing reports of worker exploitation and vulnerability. Under cover of declarations of national emergencies, businesses are terminating or cutting back the hours of workers without adequate notice and compensation, forcing others to work in unhealthy conditions, and threatening the residency status and security of migrant employees and their families.

Erosion of income security

Without a doubt the pandemic is wreaking havoc on business performance. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that economies in the MENA region will drop 5.7% in 2020, with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—shrinking an even larger 7.6%.

On top of that, oil-exporting countries are experiencing additional pain. While oil prices have recovered from their historic plunge in March, they continue to trade nearly below 40% pre-pandemic levels. And the IMF doesn’t see oil prices experiencing a significant recovery anytime soon.

Nevertheless, companies still must repay loans and stay current on taxes, while financing the retrofitting needed to comply with physical-distancing and hygiene requirements (which is estimated at increasing production costs by 25%). According to the IMF, banks in the Middle East may have to absorb $180 billion in defaults and non-performing loans.

All that spells mass job insecurity for already unstable workers. In Egypt for example, more than half of private-sector employees are being forced to work without regular contracts that guarantee their minimum rights. Many have been placed on compulsory unpaid leave; for others, wages have been reduced by 50% to 60%.

Foreign migrants are particular targets. Relief measures enacted by Gulf countries to shore up their economies share a common pattern: citizen first. For example, Omani nationals cannot be fired, but migrant workers can be. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain subsidize private-sector wages to preserve jobs, but for citizens only.

Unsafe working conditions

Those who are fortunate enough to keep their jobs are actually not so fortunate. Many of them, particularly migrants working in frontline occupations like food production, are being forced to labour for excessive hours without proper protective equipment. And reports abound of employers not paying for overtime.

In October, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies documented hazardous working conditions in Jordanian factories, triggering a rash of COVID-19 infections. In one day, 600 confirmed diagnoses were recorded among migrant workers from Bengal at a single garment factory in the industrial area of the Al-Dhalail region in the Zarqa governorate.

Not all industries are suffering to this extent, of course; some—such as Amazon and other ecommerce enterprises—have been able to cash in on the unique conditions created by the pandemic. Regardless of the particular situation, however, the obligation to respect and protect the human rights of workers remains.

“The extent to which the pandemic may spur a race to the bottom and roll back improvements in workers’ rights and conditions that have been achieved over the last years will depend on the effectiveness of international business policies in regulating and encouraging responsible business conduct and policies that govern GVCs [global value chains],” writes Leeds University’s Henrich Voss in a paper published by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Role of nternational law and treaties

International human rights treaties do not define clear legal obligations for commercial enterprises. Thus, it is up to individual state governments to translate internationally protected human rights into regulations of business behavior.

The year 2021 also will mark the 10th anniversary of the unanimous endorsement by the Human Rights Council of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

The Guiding are clear that business enterprises are responsible for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights.  These principles are based on three pillars: protection, respect and remedy. To comply, corporations must adopt specific procedures and processes to institutionalize due diligence, monitoring and remediation.

To assist states in ensuring their implementation, the U.N. Working Group on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises called on governments to develop, enact and continuously update national action plans. To date, 26 states have either developed such a plan or included a business and human rights chapter in a broader human rights strategy.

None of those 26 states are from the Middle East or North Africa. Two—Jordan and Morocco—have at least pledged to develop and adopt national action plans; however, no follow-through has yet been documented.

The documented impact of COVID-19 on workers makes it undeniable that the risks of no action are real. Without a focus on human rights in the business sector, along with follow-up to ensure enforcement, businesses can and do infringe on them—with broader implications for customers, supply-chain partners and communities at large.

However, experience has shown that too often, businesses pursue short-term gains over long-term benefit. This is why the U.N.’s global principles are critical and why pressure must be brought to bear on MENA governments to enact national action plans to obtain compliance. The emergencies in which states and businesses have descended due to both the pandemic and oil price declines may seem to be times for shortchanging employees, but the reality is that everyone—from governments, to businesses to citizens—benefit from the reliable workforces and quality products that result from guaranteed human rights.

Shortened version of this article was originally posted on Oxford Human Rights Hub

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